Penman No. 423: From Poetry to Treason

Penman for Monday, September 13, 2021

AS A COLLECTOR of old books and other objects of interest more ancient than me, I sometimes stumble across manuscripts and documents that turn out to be a bit more private than the usual accounts of travels to Sulu or the history of Negros sugar. I’ve found ardent and very carefully composed love letters (apparently never sent), poems to the departed, and receipts for unmentionables. Coming from a past where people wrote with physical ink on physical paper, these inadvertent mementoes of lives lived and loves lost convey emotion and meaning in a way that digital ones and zeroes never will.

Some of these discoveries have been particularly poignant. A few months ago, I wrote about finding a typewritten collection of essays written by Lyd Arguilla in the 1950s, where she stoically recounts her husband Manuel’s execution by the Japanese; tucked into that folder was a love poem she wrote in his memory after the war, in New York.

Last month, a bookseller offered me three items that had to do with one subject, from whose personal library they likely came. One was a scrapbook of sorts by this Filipino author, another a short biography—also typewritten—of the man and samples of his most popular works, and the third a published play written by his illustrious mother. The writer’s name was vaguely familiar to me: Aurelio S. Alvero, otherwise known by the pseudonym he adopted after the war, “Magtanggol Asa” (he himself spelled it “Magtanggul”), a play on his initials and on his ambition to become a lawyer—as well as being, of course, a self-descriptive epithet as the defender of hope. He was born in 1913  in Tondo to illustrious parents—Emilio Alvero, an artist and interior decorator, and Rosa Sevilla, writer, suffragette, and educator who founded the Instituto de Mujeres, a pioneering school for women in the Philippines.

Generations of Filipino schoolchildren have known him for his poem “1896,” written before the war, a favorite piece for choruses, because of its hypnotic rhythm and refrain. It begins:

The cry awoke Balintawak

And the echoes answered back…

“Freedom!”

All the four winds listened long 

To the shrieking of that song…. 

“Freedom!”

Just by this piece, no one can be faulted for thinking of Alvero as a patriotic poet—or in the very least a writer of patriotic poetry, and that he was. Indeed he was lauded by his peers and even later by scholars such as Grant Goodman and Augusto de Viana as a “brilliant” intellectual, one who could write equally well in Tagalog, English, and Spanish. He was a star student at the Ateneo and UST, winning a raft of medals for his scholastic achievements. 

But he was also described as a “complex” artist, a rather evasive and much kinder term for what his harshest critics would call him: a traitor to his people, convicted and imprisoned for wartime collaboration with the Japanese. The charges brought up against him by the postwar court were formidable: up to 22 counts of treason, from his active role in such pro-Japanese organizations as the Kalibapi and Makapili to selling war materiel to the enemy and participating in the destruction of Manila. The most outrageous offenses were damnably detailed: among them, that within one year, his trading firm—capitalized at only P15,000—earned a whopping P2,000,000 from sales to the Japanese (shades of Pharmally!), and that he personally directed the burning of a part of Pasay toward the end of the war. For these, and despite his spirited protestations, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bilibid, cut short by an amnesty granted by President Quirino in 1952. 

How could the same man, so gifted and so promising, turn out so badly? Even before the war, Alvero had railed against American imperialism, and—like Gen. Artemio Ricarte, among others—saw Japan as a friend and liberator. But unlike more rabid pro-Japanese Filipinos like Benigno Ramos, he opposed the atrocities of the Makapili, although he urged his countrymen to resist the Americans to the end. Complex indeed. Arguing that neither “patriot” nor “traitor” could fairly describe him, Dr. Goodman calls him “a romantic opportunist” who thought he could achieve his ideals by casting his lot with the devil.

Despite his early release from prison, the ordeal took its toll. While other writers accused of helping the Japanese like Camilo Osias lived on and even prospered, Alvero died of a heart attack in 1958 aged just 44, leaving a stain on his family’s name (his mother, Rosa Alvero, continues to be honored with a street in her name in Katipunan, Quezon City). Hardly any pictures of him can be found today, even on the Internet.

A letter from prison to his second wife, whom he called “Silahis,” reveals an inner torment that was probably the greatest cost of all. He writes:

“Makailan ko nang sinabi sa iyo na ang pagmamahal na tunay ay nasasalig sa pagtitiwala at ang di nagtitiwala ay di maaring lubos ang kaniyang pagmamahal? Gayon man, hinahagkan kita nang buong paggiliw, sabay ang dalanging nawa’y pagkaluuban ka ni Bathala ng pag-uunawa at pagtitiwala sa akin. Ang nagmamahal mong asawa, M. Asa.”

(How often have I told you that true love depends on trust, and that one who cannot trust cannot love completely? Nonetheless, I kiss you with all my heart, even as I pray that the Lord grant you trust and understanding for me. Your loving husband, M. Asa.)

Penman No. 422: An Anti-Troll Army

Penman for Monday, August 30, 2021

DESPITE THE PANDEMIC, the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) succeeded in holding the 60th UP National Writers Workshop from August 16 to 21, introducing 12 of the country’s brightest authors to each other and to their literary peers. The fellows for Filipino were Jerking Pingol (graphic fiction); Amado Anthony Mendoza III (novel); Edward Perez (play); Layeta Bucoy (play); Napoleon Arcilla III (short story); and Ma. Cecilia de la Rosa (poetry). Those for English were Joel Donato Jacob (novel); Maryanne Moll (novel); Maria Amparo Warren (short story); Alexandra Alcasid (short story); Mark Adrian Ho (poetry); and Louyzza Maria Victoria Vasquez (poetry). One of Switzerland’s best contemporary novelists (and a fluent speaker of Filipino, having studied here for her master’s), Annette Hug, also joined us for a talk about her current project.

For the second year in a row, the entire workshop was held online over Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook, allowing a much broader audience—some even tuned in from abroad—to follow the sessions. It was a big shift from the workshop’s traditional summer venue in Baguio, but contrary to many apprehensions, it went off smoothly and productively, thanks to the UPICW’s top-notch technical team which seems to have mastered the intricacies of online conferencing (the UPICW holds many other events online, including another workshop for beginning writers, an interdisciplinary book forum, and the annual Writers’ Night). By the end of the workshop, both fellows and panelists agreed that its objectives had been squarely met: to create a community of writers who would encourage each other to keep writing so that literature can train a bright light on the Filipino’s condition. 

Unlike other writers’ workshops, UP’s focuses on what we’ve been calling “mid-career” writers—those who’ve already published at least one book (or have had a play or film produced)—who may need that extra push to keep going, especially in an environment often indifferent if not hostile to creativity. At this level, we’re no longer talking about grammar and basic technique; instead, we discuss the larger issues of writing—social, political, philosophical, and professional—without the flogging and the ego-tripping that made a horror show of workshops in the old days. Writing is lonely enough for writers to make life difficult for each other. In this age of fake news, we need as many truth-seekers as we can find—an anti-troll army, if you will. 

Every workshop and every batch of workshoppers is different in some way (this year, we had a preponderance of fellows from Bicol and the Southern Tagalog region), so the complexion of our discussions can also change. What stuck in my mind from what I read of our fellows’ work (a sample of their current projects, prefaced by their personal poetics) was the strong undercurrent of pessimism, a deep-seated belief that things can only get worse. To be fair, not all of them—indeed just a minority—manifested this, but it’s been such a pervasive strain in literatures all over that I felt obliged to address it.

It’s totally understandable, of course, why people should feel pessimistic, especially in these times of global distress and anxiety. And if it’s the writer’s conviction that all is lost or soon will be, that’s his or her privilege to express.

I posited, however, that in spite and indeed because of these bad times, the greater challenge for writers and artists is to defy despair and find a way forward to hope and happiness. And by “hope and happiness” I don’t mean escapist confections or illusory promises, or tacked-on endings meant to force a smile, but true insights into what makes life worth living and fighting for—despite despotism, disease, and the constant degradation of one’s worth. The easiest thing to write today is another story about how miserable and unjust life is. Reading it won’t tell me anything new. I want to be surprised by someone who will persevere and fight for joy, beauty, peace, freedom, and redemption amid all this suffering. 

Psychologists talk of “cherophobia”—“fear of happiness” or “happiness aversion,” stemming from the expectation that happiness is fragile and fleeting, and will therefore only lead to unhappiness. True, that often happens, as our lives are always in flux, but since life can only lead to death, why are we alive at all? (Even our celebration at the end of the workshop was gutted by the tragic news that Kerima Tariman—our workshop fellow in 1999—had been killed in an encounter with the military; her poetry will live and fight on.) If we are to battle trolls with the truth, we have to believe in ultimate victory, no matter the costs until then, and shore up each other’s spirits.

I urge my fellow authors to look up and read Kelsey Capps’ essay “On Happiness, Literature, and Happy Literature,” where she argues that “The truth that happiness is defined and pursued by each of us, for ourselves, lies between the destruction of what society tells us will make us happy and the acceptance of our inherent need to seek meaning. Perhaps this airy freedom is too difficult to articulate in stories that lack tragedy as counterweight, but, as a writer, how powerful and radical it would be to tell stories that are positive and insightful and authoritative, and which give hope where there is little to be found.”

Penman No. 421: Giving Spirit: A Requiem for Riel

Penman for Monday, August 16, 2021

WHEN I woke up to the sound of my wife Beng crying as she clutched her phone, I knew instantly what had happened in the night: “Riel is gone,” she said. “Riel” was Ronald Jaramillo Hilario, a sculptor and fellow alumnus of the UP College of Fine Arts. 

No institution in this country has been spared by Covid—every school, office, factory, and hospital will have more than one sad story to tell of unexpected loss and bereavement, of someone who was there with them one minute, laughing and shooting off on the issues of the hour, and then gone seemingly in the blink of an eye.

For the UP College of Fine Arts, it has been an exceptionally terrible year. One after the other, it lost artists and faculty members such as Jak Pilar, Leo Abaya, Joey Tañedo, and Neil Doloricon, and alumni Virgie Garcia and Riel Hilario. The arts community was still reeling from the passing of Neil—one of the stalwarts of social realism in Philippine art—when news of Riel’s death came through, and as she had done much too often since the pandemic began, Beng wept again.

Oddly, neither Beng nor I had actually met Riel—he lived in Lucban with his muse Joyce Campomanes—but he had quite a large digital footprint, from which I gleaned enough, and Beng became a kind of tita figure to him, always ready to lend an ear, albeit online. He was one of those rare artists (Neil Doloricon was another one) who was extraordinarily articulate, and who didn’t hesitate to let the world know what he thought. 

“Art is my religion, and I am a priest of that faith,” he asserted, and his life offered ample proof of that sacerdotal devotion to art—to its creation, its study, and its promotion in a society threatened by destructive and diabolical forces. 

Indeed he looked every inch the part of an avenging angel (and his name summons those winged, sword-bearing creatures), bearded and muscular, with piercing eyes that seemed like they could see right through falsehood and deception. (Lorenzo Gabutina described him as “warrior, sultan, larger-than-life… a Pinoy Thor.”) His sense of mission, his critical intelligence, and his expressiveness may not have made him the easiest person in the room to sit with, but his seriousness was a reminder that art involves far more than decorating the homes of the rich, even as he created playful objects and rebultos that drew on native folklore and religion.

His formal résumé was more than sufficiently impressive. Coming out of the woodcarving tradition of Ilocos Sur, Riel went on to the Philippine High School for the Arts and UP, transitioning from painting to full-time sculpture in 2008. He undertook residencies and explorations in the US and Europe and served as curator for the Boston and Pinto art galleries. He also co-founded Artinformal, an art-education collective. In 2012, he was the winner of the Ateneo Art Awards-Fernando Zóbel Prizes for Visual Art, and in the same year was named one of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Thirteen Artists. 

Wood sculpture, he told Glenn Martinez, “served as my self-directed therapy following a debilitating episode of manic-depression in 2007. I had schizoid visions and dreams that were terrifying and disturbing. I felt the need to find an outlet that was more tactile than painting or writing. The following year I started carving wood sculptures based on the tradition of the rebulto, but following the urgings and suggestions of my visions. The practice had a cathartic effect and also helped me refocus my cultural work to do research on the craft.”

But as brilliant and productive as his own art was, Riel was also appreciated by his fellow artists for his advocacy of artists’ rights and his generosity toward others. A Facebook page dedicated to his memory and maintained by his relative and close friend Paul, “The Feathered Angel: A Tribute to Riel Hilario (1969-2021),” is full of testimonials to that giving spirit. Riel was on a mission to make sure his fellow artists were never taken advantage of by galleries and dealers, and for them to get their due recognition and respect. (In one recent episode, he recounted how he and Joyce had been turned down by a prominent bank’s branch in Antipolo when they tried to open an account, allegedly because artists can’t show proof of regular income; outraged, he recalled how solicitous the teller was in New York when he presented a $50,000 check for deposit.)

He was still brimming with ideas and plans for the future—having taught at PHSA, he was thinking of teaching at UP—when both he and Joyce were stricken by the virus. From Lucban came desperate calls for help—especially for oxygen—to friends like Glenn Martinez, Jason Moss, and Ricky Francisco. Glenn did what he could from Metro Manila to coordinate assistance, and Riel and Joyce were brought to a hospital in Lucena. But it was too full to accommodate them, and they were sent home. 

Joyce survived; Riel did not. But as one of Riel’s favorite sayings (and mine, from Hippocrates) goes, “Ars longa, vita brevis”—art is long, art endures, as short as our lives may be.

(Images courtesy of Joyce Campomanes)

Penman No. 416: Tips for Freelancers

Penman for Monday, June 21, 2021

A GROUP of freelancers—people who write for a living but who prefer not to be tethered to any single employer—recently asked me to share some advice on how to get the most out of their job. Even in normal times, freelance writing has never been easy. You are basically on your own, dependent on your network of contacts and on your resourcefulness to get that next assignment and get that story published. While the Internet may have opened up new opportunities, it has also intensified competition and imposed new demands. 

Having been a professional writer and editor for almost 50 years, I was happy to give them these tips:

1. Broaden your interests. If your main interest is arts and culture, learn something about science and technology. Know your history, and gain even a basic understanding of economics. Don’t be choosy. As long as the job pays fairly and will not harm you in any way, do it because it will be another learning experience and will add more value to your résumé. 

2. Expand your capabilities. Learn the basics of good photography and invest in a good camera (even a good smartphone), as it will add value to your articles and make them easier to sell. Learn to write bilingually, especially as many clients will need scripts or articles in Filipino. Expand your genres, so you can write not only features but scripts, speeches, reports, and other marketable materials. Master the language, so you can also do editing work. Learn the basics of web design. 

3. Know the market. Writing single articles can be fun, but I doubt that they will make you enough to support yourself and your family. The physical magazines have shrunk to almost nothing, and while there may be money to be made online doing nearly mechanical work, you will want something more engaging and more remunerative. In my experience, a freelance writer can make the most from writing commissioned books. 

4. Learn to market yourself. This means you have to put yourself and your name out there, meeting people from all backgrounds. You may have to attend art exhibit openings, book launches, anniversaries, and other functions to make contacts and get to know what’s going on. Get on the mailing and invitation lists of embassies. Make friends with key media people. You may even have to do a few “freebies”—free publicity—just to get known. Maintain a blog that will display both your writing and your photography—indeed, your style—so potential clients can have an idea of how you write and how you will treat their material. Write a book—that will be the best way to get yourself noticed as a writer. Ask yourself: if someone were to Google my name, what will they find? Provide a positive answer to that. 

5. Be thoroughly professional. Be mindful of appointments, contracts, deadlines, accreditation, receipts, and taxes. Treat every job, no matter how small, as your first, last, and only job. Attend meetings promptly, dress smartly, speak knowledgeably—all of these contribute to the impression your client will make of you. Digitally record all interviews, after asking prior permission; never rely on handwritten notes. Back up your files to the Cloud and to an external drive. If the job is big enough, ask for a written contract, or at least a signed conformé to your proposal. 

6. Treat your work as a business. You will get more—and also more substantial—writing jobs if you are able to issue official receipts. This means getting properly registered as a business enterprise with the SEC, the BIR, and other agencies. To get government contracts, you need to be accredited with PhilGEPS, or the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System. These accreditation processes can be tedious and expensive; you will also have to file taxes every year and do your own bookkeeping. But if you want to write for a living for the rest of your life, it’s an investment that will pay for itself in the long run. 

7. The writing life can be full of delightful freebies. I’m not telling you to reject them outright—Lord knows your professional fees are small enough, so these can be taken as compensation in kind—but don’t lie, and don’t be a party to fraud or misrepresentation. If you can’t write honestly about a product or a service, don’t take any favors coming your way. Like they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch—but make sure your lunch isn’t poisoned and will kill you later.

8. Maintain your integrity. As I said, don’t be too choosy and too proud, especially if you’re starting out and trying to build a name. But don’t undersell yourself, either, and try not to get exploited. I say “try,” because in practice, at some point or other, someone will exploit you, whether you’re aware of it or not. Learn to say “No” if and when you have to. Compromise is good and even often necessary, but draw a line in the sand beyond which you will not go. Money is important, but it is not everything. Other and better projects will come. Unless you are desperate, do not take on jobs that will not make you happy; at least, make them pay well for your unhappiness. 

Penman No. 415: Stay Curious!

Penman for Monday, June 7, 2021

OVER THE past month, I was asked to speak to two groups—one an assembly of teachers, and the other of students—to share my ideas about college education, and specifically the kind of liberal, interdisciplinary education being offered at the University of the Philippines and other progressive universities.

Rather than talk about curricula and theories of education—never my strong suit—I opted to look back on my 36 years of teaching and on my own experience as a student to figure out what I truly learned from that crucial period in every young person’s life, beyond the books we read. Some of these realizations came long after college—which was all right, since one of the things that college should teach us is that education is a lifelong process that goes beyond degrees earned and seminars attended.

So I came up with a 12-point wish list of what I as a teacher want my students learn—whether in my classes or outside of them, at school and in life. 

I phrased these 12 statements as simply as possible, without too many elaborations, because I didn’t want to sound like a research paper. Rather, I wanted my listeners to think of these statements as provocations, things to keep at the back of their minds, and for the students to remember four or five years hence when they graduate from college. Here goes:

1. You don’t have to understand everything right away. In any case, you can’t. Some things in life will forever remain mysteries—some of them wonderful, some of them perplexing. Staying curious is what matters to the lifelong learner. Boredom is often just the absence of curiosity.

2. Engagement helps—and by engagement, I mean investing yourself, putting in your time, effort, and maybe even money behind some belief or idea or activity that means something to you. Sometimes engagement is the best way of knowing, learning, and finally understanding. 

3. Not everything has to have practical value—at least not yet, or maybe ever. Value can mean more than utility or money. Delight and discovery are their own rewards.

4. You are not the center of the universe. Not everything has to do with you. However, every connection you can make to the world around you leaves a mark that you were here—and that, in your own way, you mattered.

5. Learn to see time in years and centuries, not seconds or hours. If you want to foretell the future, look back to the past. We may seem to be headed for the future, but in fact we will all inevitably be part of the past. How will you want to be remembered?

6. Intelligence, cleverness, knowledge, and wisdom are very different things. Knowledge without values is worthless and even dangerous. The middling student who has a sense of good and bad and right and wrong is worthier than the summa cum laude who doesn’t.

7. The first thought that comes to your mind may not be the best one. Pause and think before you speak or write, especially in these days of Facebook and Twitter. Speech but also silence can require courage and good judgment.

8. Learn to love something larger than yourself, your family, and your prized possessions. “Nation,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” are very attractive ideas, but you have to learn to bring these big words down to earth, in concrete forms, actions, and decisions. Can you accept that you are your housekeeper’s equal as a human being? 

9. Be prepared to take risks and to make mistakes—and even to fail. You can learn more from failure than from over-performance. Everybody—even the very best of us—will fail sometime, and it will be good to believe that we are all entitled to at least one big mistake in our lives.

10. Be prepared to change your mind. As you grow and learn, some things will become more simple, and others more complex. You are not a fixed entity; you are changing all the time, and you can change faster than the world around you. 

11. Technology can be deceptive. It can lead us to believe that the world is changing very fast and for the better. That may be true for some of us and for the way we live. But for many others left behind, the world is no better than it was a hundred years ago.

12. Competition is good, but cooperation or even compromise is often better—and necessary. Poems are written by solitary genius, but bridges, cathedrals, and nations are built by many minds and hands. The best way to deal with loneliness is to find meaning in the many—to learn from and to contribute to the experience of others.

With that, I wished the students the best on their next adventures in college, and just as Steve Jobs told us to “Stay hungry, stay foolish!”, I urged them to stay curious, so they will always enjoy learning, inside or outside of school.

Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 410: A Dimming of Lights

Penman for Monday, March 29, 2021

OUTSIDE OF immediate family, there comes to every life at least one figure whom we cannot owe and thank enough—a mentor, a cheerleader, a believer on whose every word of encouragement you wait, and whose rebukes or admonitions, albeit rare, strike you with chilling efficacy.

This past month I lost two such figures, a woman and a man who lived into their nineties and thus influenced not only me but generations of students and acolytes eager to learn.

The first was Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea—better known to many as the understandably proud mother of Smart founder Doy and Mapua president Rey, among other accomplished children. She was our English teacher at the Philippine Science High School, where she taught for many decades and became an institution.

For many decades now, I’ve boasted about being Mrs. Vea’s acknowledged pet. One of the things I quickly realized upon her passing was that it wasn’t true—we were all her pets.

Maybe I just felt special, because that’s what she made each of us feel. We were the third batch of PSHS students, long before the school came to be known as “Pisay.” But she did far more than teach us grammar and even literature. She taught us to think on our feet, to see beyond the obvious, and to enjoy ourselves doing it. She liberated our minds, and made a science high school feel like a playground for the imagination.

There are two episodes that have remained very clearly with me that happened when I was editor of the Science Scholar, and she was our adviser. Once, deadlines were falling due, but I was feeling lazy, so I told her I wasn’t in the mood to write. That was the only time I saw her get angry. I can’t recall exactly what she told me, maybe because it left me in total shock, but she made it clear that talent was worth nothing without discipline. I went to work right away.

Another time, in more pleasant circumstances, she took me aside to tell me something important. “Butch,” she said, “there are two young writers I want you to read, because both of them are very good. One is Joey Arcellana, and he edits the Philippine Collegian at UP. The other is still in UP High, and his name is Gary Olivar.” I think she was telling me that there were far better writers than myself, and that it was good to never forget that, if I was to continue learning. I took her advice, and because of it, within my first semester of entering UP two years later, I joined the Philippine Collegian, and also the Alpha Sigma fraternity, to which Gary and incidentally Mrs. Vea’s son Doy belonged.

But more than a teacher, she was a second mother to us, and I was especially touched by the memory of one of my batchmates, Ophelia Gaspay, who recalled how she was sitting all by herself in one of our school dances, watching the world go by. Suddenly, much to her surprise, someone went up to her to ask her for a dance—none other than Rey Vea, the dreamboat and heartthrob of the whole school. As they were twirling across the floor, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a beaming Mrs. Vea, her fairy godmother, who had apparently waved her magic wand.

The second mentor I lost was the writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton, who had a long and distinguished career in journalism. Literature majors should remember him as the author of the classic postwar short story “Clay,” which won first prize in the Palanca Awards of 1951. When I met him in the early 1990s, he was about as old as I am now, and had set up a speechwriting operation for President Fidel V. Ramos. He needed another hand; I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US, and was close to penniless. 

I learned not only graceful and effective speechwriting from Johnny, but also imbibed his intellectual curiosity, his love for the arts, and his generosity toward younger writers. Johnny held office at the painter Malang’s building on West Avenue in Quezon City, and every now and then Johnny hosted lunch for a train of literary luminaries who included Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Greg Brillantes, Rony Diaz, and Andy Cristobal Cruz; I was the proverbial fly on the wall, eavesdropping on another generation’s animated conversation.

In 1994, when I was a awarded a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (where I eventually wrote and completed Penmanship and Other Stories), instead of docking me a month’s pay for my absence, Johnny gave me the cash for pocket money and wished me well on my writing. Many years later, out of the blue and when he had also retired, Johnny asked me and the late Raul Rodrigo out to lunch just so we could chat about nonfiction and daydream about which National Artist’s biography we most wanted to write (I think I said Franz Arcellana, another mentor of mine, and Raul said Botong Francisco). 

The dimming of such lights, although inevitable, is deeply saddening, but we can only wish that we will be as sorely missed when our time comes.

Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

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.