Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are

 

 

Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

Zarcal

Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

WE HAD some very distinguished visitors over at UP from James Cook University in Australia last week, and while most of them came from the sciences, I was happy to join the team that greeted and met with them, led by our very capable Vice President for Academic Affairs, the sociologist Cynch Bautista. These growing partnerships are part of UP’s continuing effort to assume a more international outlook—to imbibe the best of what leading universities around the world have to offer while projecting and sharing our strongest academic and intellectual resources as well.

While most of our international academic exchanges have traditionally been conducted with universities in the West, especially the United States, we have increasingly and consciously broadened our reach to embrace more universities within the region—Taiwan has been a very active partner of late—and Australia should be a logical focus for more of these exchanges.

I myself have had the pleasure of visiting Australia several times—as a visiting writer with the Australia Defence Forces Academy in Canberra, as a guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival, and as a speaker at literary conferences in Perth and Melbourne. What has always impressed me about Australia is not only the sheer vastness of the land, but also the openness and friendliness of the people I’ve met there, and their refreshing informality.

Though not that old—it was established in 1970—JCU has risen quickly to become one of the world’s top universities focused on the tropics, with cutting-edge research in such diverse but important areas as rainforest monitoring, natural disasters, reef management, and vaccine development. Aside from campuses in Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, it also has a campus in Singapore offering courses in business, education, and health sciences.

Our leading UP scientists and administrators had much to share with their JCU counterparts, with UP Los Baños touting its research in nanobiotechnology and biofuels, UP Manila studying ways of dealing with dengue and hookworm, and the Marine Science Institute promoting conservation of genetic diversity and fishery sustainability.

But aside from these concerns, what I personally found fascinating was a discovery I made while looking up the background of our historical relations with Australia. On academia.edu (a treasure trove of academic papers), I ran into an essay written by the noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto and published in 1993 by—coincidence?—James Cook University. The essay covers Philippine-Australian interactions in the late 1800s, and makes an early point about Australia being the second largest market for Philippine coffee and the largest one for sugar in the mid-19th century.

But the essay goes far beyond economic statistics to relate the remarkable stories of two Australians in the Philippines and one Filipino immigrant in Australia. It wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to bring up at our meeting, so I kept my amusement to myself over what Dr. Ileto found:

“The first Australian revealed to us by the Spanish records was an illegal entrant—a nameless and unwelcome woman…. This Sydney woman, [the British consul] pointed out, was definitely not the sort of person the governor-general would allow to stay. And true enough, the latter decreed that she was to be transported without any more delay to Sydney … ‘without permission ever to return to these islands.’

You can guess what this plucky if unlucky lady’s profession was. She would be followed in the annals by one Charles Wilridge Robinson, who first appears in 1880 and “for nearly every year” for at least 17 years “was brought to court for some offence or other,” typically involving a heightened state of intoxication and acts “of a piratical nature,” including “borrowing” a boat for six weeks and sailing down to Palawan.

But my interest peaked and my heart swelled when I came to Ileto’s account of a Filipino who became a successful businessman in Queensland and also a revolutionary patriot. Heriberto Zarcal was a jeweler in Santa Cruz, Manila who moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (facing Papua New Guinea) in May 1892, and soon offered his services as a “Lapidary and Optician, Goldsmith, Watchmaker, and Pearl Cleaner.” Filipino sailors—then known worldwide as “Manilamen”—had become pearl divers in the area since the 1870s. Zarcal grew rich, “mentioned as one of only five men on the Island licensed to deal in pearls… [who] had just acquired his own fleet of pearling vessels.” So successful was he that a European competitor complained by asking “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?”

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What was unique about Zarcal was how—even as he had assumed British citizenship to be able to run a business—he flaunted his sympathies for the revolutionists back home, to the point of displaying a big sign saying “NOLI ME TANGERE” on top of his establishment. I’ll let Rey Ileto tell rest of the story in his own words:

“Zarcal, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, must have been among the many expatriate nationalists who consulted with Aguinaldo. An issue of the Hong Kong journal Overland China Mail which appeared in late March 1898 reported that Zarcal had commissioned the construction of three pearling schooners and named them the Aguinaldo, the Llanera, and the Natividad—in honour of three Filipino generals who had won victories against Spanish forces.” (He would give his other boats names like Sikatuna, Magdalo, Kalayaan, Justicia, and so on.)

“After 1905 Zarcal maintained only a handful of boats for pearling. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on his Thursday Island business as pearl-buyer and jeweller, augmenting his local stock of pearls with purchases from Port Darwin and the Dutch East Indies. Characteristically, perhaps, the final episode in his life was an extended journey to Europe begun in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Zarcal are said to have paid homage to their monarch, the Queen of England, presenting her with a huge pearl. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the Great War, the Zarcals waited it out in Europe, finally renting a flat in Paris in early 1916. There, on 9 February 1917, Zarcal succumbed to a stomach ulcer. At his deathbed were his wife Esther and ‘an old friend from Thursday Island,’ the Rev. Father Ferdinand Hartzer.”

So ends this amazing story, a gift from Down Under which I would never have heard of if I hadn’t been told that we were going to play host to some colleagues from James Cook University—which, to complete the circle, now runs a school on Thursday Island.

Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

LadyPilots

Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 245: The Devil Is in the Data

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Penman for Monday, April 3, 2017

 

 

WE’RE OFTEN told that the devil is in the details, but today, you’ll likely find it in the data—that amorphous, often opaque stream of 1’s and 0’s whose infinite permutations define, describe, and direct our daily lives from our social-security pensions to our children’s grades.

Forty years ago, all you might have needed was an ID card, a driver’s license, and a passbook for bank deposits and withdrawals. You didn’t have a mess of numbers and certainly no passwords to memorize (and to lose). A signature was something you scribbled on paper with a pen, and an ID picture—invariably ugly and smelling of the sourish chemical bath it came out of—was a black-and-white mug shot the size of a postage stamp.

Speaking of which, if someone wanted to steal your “data,” they first had to steal an envelope with your name and address on it, and (if they wanted to keep the theft a secret) open the envelope gently with a cloud of steam. Postmen had to be waylaid, dogs euthanized, windows broken into, brass locks opened, and filing cabinets pried loose. Then, and only then, could the robbers get their gloved hands on your stock certificates, your paramour’s love letters, your UPCAT score, and your secret recipe for Lola Oryang’s Sinigang.

These thoughts crossed my mind last week as I sat in a committee meeting that pondered the impositions and implications of the Freedom of Information Act on government bureaucracies like our university’s. As old-guard civil libertarians, we all marched at one time or another for freedom and democracy, and have prized freedom of expression above all others, so it was probably safe to assume that we were all in support of freedom of information—the notion that citizens have the right of access to information from their governments, toward greater transparency and accountability, which presumably leads to better governance. (I’m not a lawyer, so this is my pedestrian’s appreciation of it.)

So the citizen asks a question, and the government provides the answer, right? Not so fast.  Like many good things, FOI isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially when you get down to the nitty-gritty of its implementation. This could have been why, despite calling for an FOI law for many years, Filipinos didn’t get one even under Noynoy Aquino, who promised it when he ran for president in 2009. It took President Duterte—in what I’ll hazard to be his most popular move among his opponents—to enact an FOI measure through Executive Order No. 2 shortly after he took office last year, since Congress, the keeper of many secrets, couldn’t pass an FOI bill.

The order mandated that “Every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development,” with information referring to “records, documents, papers, reports, letters, contracts, minutes and transcripts of official meetings, maps, books, photographs, data, research materials, films, sound and video recording, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data, computer stored data, any other like or similar data or materials recorded, stored or archived in whatever format, whether offline or online, which are made, received, or kept in or under the control and custody of any government office pursuant to law, executive order, and rules and regulations or in connection with the performance or transaction of official business by any government office.”

FOI is supposed to work hand in glove with another initiative called Open Data, meant to be a repository of all the data requested from and proactively disclosed by the government, working through an eFOI platform where requests can be posted and processed.

That all sounds good if you’re going after an important or interesting document like a politician’s financial records, but again it’s not that simple. EO2 is accompanied by a list of nine major classes of exemptions, including sensitive personal information, trade secrets, and certain proceedings and investigations. (For all these documents, visit www.foi.gov.ph.)

In other words, and contrary to what some people might have naively expected, FOI is by no means an absolute right, bounded as it is by considerations such as those delineated by the Data Privacy Act of 2012. The DPA was designed to bring the Philippines and its booming BPO industry, which handles loads of personal data, in line with international privacy standards.

Between freedom of information and data privacy is a wide gray swath that’s still being demarcated by lawyers, ethicists, and the administrators who have to implement whatever the final rules are going to be.

In the university, we routinely receive scores of requests from, say, alumni looking for their old classmates and asking for their current addresses; unfortunately, even if we had them (which we often don’t), we can’t and won’t give them out. We can give you your transcript of records, but not someone else’s. These are the easier questions to deal with.

But what do you do when someone asks for the results of a publicly funded research project that could have commercial applications? How do you respond to a patently frivolous request for information (which, if properly framed and presented, the law still requires you to answer in some form within 15 days), like “How many blades of grass are there in UP Diliman?”

It’ll take a while to sort these issues out, which lie on the periphery of a larger and thornier ideological debate. We authors may believe our copyright to be sacrosanct, but there’s a whole “freedom of knowledge” school of thought out there (and even within academia) opposed to the idea of intellectual property and copyright, supported by groups that also advocate electronic civil disobedience.

“Is ‘We don’t know’ a valid answer to an FOI request?” I had to ask the people at our meeting, but I couldn’t get a categorical yes or no. Strangely enough, I found that ambiguity comforting, because it assured me that we still had a lot of thinking to do. Data is one thing, information another, and wisdom beyond legislation to establish.

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(Image from techcrunch.com)

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

SJackson

Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 241: The Long and Short of Summary

240_f_86352387_qpckndkcg4djurkk2t8g8niysulm2iejPenman for Monday, March 6, 2017

 

 

IN DEALING with communications and reports drafted by my office staff and by my students, one problem I often encounter is the writer’s inability or reluctance to summarize needlessly long passages.

Some of that happens simply because the writer doesn’t know how to digest material, which further means that he or she can’t distinguish between the relative levels of importance of different statements. Another reason is sheer fear, especially in authoritarian or sensitive environments where messing with someone else’s text could land you in major trouble.

But we all need summaries, good ones, of everything out there. We simply don’t have the time to slog through every document that comes our way in this information-saturated age.

Good summarizing takes sharpness of mind and boldness of spirit. It means you know which parts you can cut without doing damage to the heart of the piece and that you can stitch the snippets together to form a new whole. You’d be surprised by the compelling clarity that shines through a properly summarized paper, by how much latent energy pulses in tautened prose.

I had an interesting conversation last year with a Filipino graduate student in Seoul. I was recalling the time more than 40 years ago when, as a junior writer-editor employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, I wondered why the current Five-Year Development Plan I was editing was as fat as a phone book, while the South Korean plan I had as a reference was no thicker than a Perry Mason paperback. And look, I told the student, where Korea had gone, minus the verbosity.

And then the student told me something that explained away the mystery of that anorexic document. In Korea, he said, managers and CEOs put a premium on brevity; the higher up the ladder your document went, the more condensed it was expected to be, to spare the bosses the chore of plowing through pages of data. Recommendations were to be brief and to the point.

It’s surprising because it seems so counterintuitive. For most of us, less is simply less and more is surely more. Our normal tendency is to add, to elaborate, to complicate until we can barely remember what our original thought was. We Pinoys especially have a tradition of rhetorical bombast that employs big words without meaning much, and we’ve mastered the art of filling dead air with, well, dead sounds.

This is why speakers in school programs (and the people who introduce them) take forever to say the most prosaic things; people walk up to the mike in the open forum and feel compelled to tell their life story before finally asking a question, if they do at all. We love to talk for the sake of talking, cluttering our prose with the same verbal indiscipline.

For me, a good summary begins, first of all, with the writer’s grasp of the main ideas running through the piece he or she is summarizing. This requires a thorough read-through of the original and an understanding of its basic argument. Without this sympathetic comprehension, attempts at trimming it down to size are bound to fail or to at least be misdirected. The best book reviewers are great at being able to reduce a thick volume to its thesis. That’s because they’re not just idle English majors like you and me, but are very likely experts in the field who may know more about the writers and their subjects than the writers themselves.

Since most of us aren’t such experts, the next best thing would be to take careful notes of what’s being said—identifying (and even physically highlighting) main points in the text and understanding why they’re being made. These points can then be paraphrased, condensed, and sequentially presented.

A good summary is also mindful and possibly reflective of the tone of the original—whether businesslike, contemplative, combative, or comic, for example. Nowhere should the summarizer’s own opinions or biases intrude, unless one is summarizing one’s own material.

This leads me to one of my pet peeves, the abuse of PowerPoint by speakers who don’t know the difference between a talk and an AV script. These are the people who will turn their whole speech into slides that are little more than blocks of text and unreadable graphs, and who will do little more than read everything that’s being flashed onscreen.

We might not mind this practice too much if these speakers were audibly engaging, knowing which phrases to emphasize or when to pause for dramatic effect. In many cases, however, this ritual is performed by zombie-like drones who seem to have no inkling that they actually have an audience behind them (behind, because they’re reading off the screen)—and an audience that can read as well as, if not faster than, them. PowerPoint presentations are meant to be verbal and visual summaries of whatever is being pitched.

There’s little excuse for a long paragraph to be splashed across the screen where a picture and four or five memorable words will do. That paragraph will be forgotten as soon as the slide vanishes, but the image will linger long afterwards.

Of course you’ll always lose a little something even in the best summary, but let’s put it this way: the best summaries will make the reader want to read the rest of the material, which is what you probably wanted to happen in the first place.

(Image from fotolia.com)

Penman No. 240: Cebu Goes MAAAD

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Penman for Monday, February 27, 2017

 

 

THAT’S MAAAD as in “Master of Arts in Applied Arts and Design,” a new degree program recently launched by the University of the Philippines Cebu in collaboration with Taiwan’s Shu Te University (STU).

And what’s the big deal about this new offering? Well, it taps into one of Cebu’s native strengths—its deep roots in artistic expression, coupled with cutting-edge technology—while bringing Cebu in direct contact with leading global knowledge centers like STU.

Cebu, of course, isn’t just one of the country’s major economic and political capitals. It’s also home to rich cultural traditions in painting, literature, music, dance, theater, and film, among other genres. It’s no surprise that it gave birth to a world-class talent like furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue, who graced the launch of the MAAAD program along with Cebu City Mayor Tomas R. Osmeña, UP President Danilo L. Concepcion, UP Cebu Chancellor Liza D. Corro, and CCAD Acting Dean Jocelyn Pinzon. STU was represented by its former President Dr. Chu Yuan Hsiang and Dr. Eing Ming Wu, among others.

The cooperation between UP Cebu and STU is no accident. Cebu and Kaohsiung are sister cities, an unusually strong relationship made visible by the proliferation of modern “Kaohsiung” buses in Cebu. It implements the Taiwan-Philippines Academic Networking Platform which was forged in May last year between UP and the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, following a visit to Kaohsiung by a UP team led by then President Alfredo E. Pascual and UP Open University Chancellor Grace Javier Alfonso.

“We in Taiwan have usually focused on Western countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, neglecting an English-speaking country much closer to Taiwan, the Philippines,” noted the ebullient Dr. Wu, who would email me upon his return to Kaohsiung to report that “I am overwhelmed by the new momentum created by our partnership. At this moment, ten UP Cebu students plus one chaperone have arrived to visit physiology labs in three different distinguished universities. They will be staying at the UP Guest House in Kindness Hotel, a facility we set up to host our Filipino visitors. Another batch of six UP Diliman faculty members will be in Kaohsiung to seek matches with Southern Taiwan universities for their PhD degrees from February 28 to March 3.”

UP Cebu is uniquely positioned at the nexus of tradition and innovation. It’s the UP System’s eighth and newest constituent university, but it will be celebrating its centennial as an educational institution next year. The age shows in the old college building along Gorordo Avenue, but don’t let the antique charm fool you—a laser cutter and 3D printer are busy at work in another wing next door. For its part, and although relatively young, STU has already won prestigious international awards for its students’ work in communications and design, including the iF Student Design Award in 2016.

The new MAAAD program promises to be both challenging and rewarding. To be administered by UP Cebu’s College of Communication, Art, and Design (CCAD), the 36-unit, four-semester program will cover courses in research, digital content design, product design, fabric design, technology, and art, among others. Classes will be taught by instructors from STU at UP Cebu’s new campus at the South Road Project—a huge reclamation area that promises to be the city’s new boomtown—but students will defend their theses and receive their diplomas at STU in Kaohsiung. (Mayor Osmeña had made the five-hectare SRP lot available to UP.)

MAAAD faculty and students can bank on laboratories and facilities comprising UP Cebu’s FabLab (put up with DTI support), fine arts workshops, and the CCAD’s computer laboratory. It won’t be cheap, with tuition running at nearly P60,000 per semester, but a scholarship scheme is being discussed. Besides, explains Chancellor Corro, “We expect many of our students to be working professionals for whom the program will present expanded opportunities for further growth.”

In his remarks, Kenneth Cobonpue made a wry reference to the fact that UP turned him down years ago when he applied to its Fine Arts program after failing his drawing exam. He later found his true calling in industrial design. The MAAAD program should now make sure that no design geniuses are turned away at the door, ever again. For more information, email maaad.upcebu@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is July 15.

 

ON BEHALF of my old office, the UP Institute of Creative of Writing (UPICW), I’m also glad to announce the fellows to the 56th UP National Writers Workshop to be held on March 12-19, 2017 at the BP International Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna. Twelve writers have been selected for the workshop, to be led by this year’s workshop director Vladimeir Gonzales.

The 2017 fellows are Arbeen Acuña (Fiction, Filipino), Christa de la Cruz (Poetry, Filipino), Zeno Denolo (Fiction, Filipino), Rowena Festin (Fiction, Filipino), Rogene Gonzales (Fiction, Filipino), Arvin Mangohig (Poetry, English), Arnie Mejia (Creative Nonfiction, English), Paolo Enrico Melendez (Creative Nonfiction, English), Charisse-Fuschia Paderna (Poetry, English), Wilfredo Pascual (Creative Nonfiction, English), Karren Renz Seña (Fiction, English), and Alvin Ursua (Poetry, Filipino).

See you all next month in Los Baños!

 

SPEAKING OF Cebuano artists and writers, I was very sad to hear about the passing after a long illness of a colleague and friend—and one of UP’s and Cebu’s most outstanding art scholars and critics—Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete. Reuben was also one of the stalwarts of the Erehwon Center for the Arts, and we went to the US together last July on Erehwon’s behalf to pitch hard for the establishment of the American Museum of Philippine Art. More than that, he had been one of my daughter Demi’s favorite teachers when she was an Art Studies major, and my wife Beng was a dear friend of his to the last. Reuben left an indelible impression on everyone he met with his prodigious knowledge, his acerbic wit, and his passion for books and learning. Godspeed, Reuben, and see you in that great gallery in the sky!

 

 

Penman No. 238: A Little Carillon Music

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Penman for Monday, February 13, 2017

 

 

IT’S BEEN a bit nippy these past few mornings on the campus of UP Diliman, where I’ve not only taught for the past 33 years but where we’ve also lived for almost 14 years now, in a house once occupied by one of the most beloved icons of the English department, the late Prof. Concepcion “Ching” Dadufalza. I inherited the bungalow on Juan Luna Street when Miss Dadufalza moved out to be with her sister. She could have stayed in it forever as Professor Emeritus—one of the loftiest distinctions a lifelong teacher could aspire for—but she merited better care and companionship in her old age, as only her family could give her. In a sense, of course, the university was Ching Dadufalza’s family—and they would come and visit her in Juan Luna, stalwart wards like the poet Jimmy Abad, her eternal student and virtual son.

Campus housing is one of those few perks of university life that professors look forward to, given the crippling rentals in the metropolis and, just as insufferable, the traffic you have to plow through to get to your classroom in time. Beng and I actually owned a small house in San Mateo (which we’ve since sold to raise funds for a newer car), but the commuting crushed us, so we stayed for many years in a succession of apartments closer to UP until the opportunity arose to live on campus.

That opportunity came when I was appointed Vice President for Public Affairs by President Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo in 2003. I was chair of the English department then and still eager to tickle young minds in the two classes I taught. I felt no great urge to take on a heavier administrative burden—the position came with the kind of prestige that only my UP-alumna mother could boast about to her Tuesday-Circle friends, and very little otherwise by way of extra emoluments. I would end up sending the office’s pockmarked Corona to the body shop for a spray-over at my own expense, figuring that the university’s chief spokesman and lobbyist deserved a veneer of respectability.

But being on call to the President and the office 24/7 was also a good argument to live on campus, and when Miss Dadufalza moved out of Juan Luna, her former home was assigned to me. As far as I was concerned, that privilege of campus housing was my true salary for serving as VP. Whether the larger bungalows for senior faculty or the walk-ups for young instructors, it’s prized not only because it’s affordable and hard to get, but also because… well, let me explain.

Ching’s house had a gazebo put up in the yard for her by her loving students, and when the giant mango trees overhead were fruiting, you could hear mangoes drop on the roof in soft thuds, and pick up the fruits and eat them after a quick wash.

By day, on the job, I would dash off across the city in the old Toyota for meetings with cranky politicians and even crankier students over the proposed new UP Charter. But I came home to sweet mangoes, fragrant papayas, and birdsong in the branches, to the enveloping coolness, the cadena de amor, and the carillon music that had defined Diliman for me since I began roaming the campus as a boy in the early ‘60s, hoping to someday study there. I had never imagined becoming a professor, much less a poobah, and now here I was in a starched barong, defending and propagating the legacy of Rafael Palma and Salvador P. Lopez.

But I began by saying how cool it’s been in Diliman this February. Beng and I have been taking five-kilometer walks every other day to savor the air. Two years short of retirement, I could stop here at the Sunken Garden and just enjoy the dewy scenery.

One afternoon last week, I embarrassed myself in my American Lit class by talking about that scenery, and then uncharacteristically weeping. I told my students that I had just been asked to serve, once again, as VP for Public Affairs, and I wanted to say no because I knew I was going to be sorry when the workload hit and when the problems started streaming in, but I couldn’t, because it was UP asking, and because my mother would be happy, and because UP had given me, quite literally, a good home. So here I am again, brushing my shoes and counting my barongs, a little carillon music tinkling between my ears.

 

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And now let me put in a word for a friend, the writer and translator Chichi Lizot who, as it turns out, had quite a lively and a lovely youth. She wrote me to recall that “My seven-year stint as a flight attendant was perhaps the most daring thing I had ever done. I joined Philippine Airlines when it was still a small family, in 1974. I was barely eighteen!  I naturally think of the late Chona Kasten, epitome of elegance, grace, and class. I flew during her time when many of us regarded her as very much like the head mistress of a revered finishing school that was not easy to get into.”

Chichi wants her fellow PAL alumni to know that on Saturday, February 18, a reunion of over 600 PAL ex-personnel from all departments and indeed from all over the world will take place at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. Latin Night is sponsored by the Association of Former Flight Attendants of Philippine Airlines for the benefit of Tahanan ni Maria, a home for the aged in Carmona, Cavite. Naty Crame Rogers, 94 years old, who began flying in 1946, will show her juniors how to salsa during this Latin-inspired evening of dinner, dance, a fashion show of PAL uniforms through the years, a raffle of great prizes, and many more.

For tickets, please call AFFAP Chairman Christie Altura at 0917-8478117 or AFFAP President Avelyn Jahns at 0917-8199018.

 

Penman No. 237: A Singular Honor

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Penman for Monday, February 6, 2017

 

 

I’VE HAD the pleasure and the privilege of winning a number of awards for my writing and teaching, but none of them has been as personally overwhelming for me as a recent honor bestowed upon me by my university and by a private benefactor.

At its 1323rd meeting last December 16, the University of the Philippines Board of Regents approved the creation of the One UP-Jose Yap Dalisay Jr. Professorial Chair in Creative Writing, to be awarded once every three years to a deserving professor (an assistant professor at the minimum) in the Department of English and Comparative Literature (DECL) who has distinguished himself or herself in creative writing and its teaching.

The awardee will receive a grant of PHP 120,000 per year for a three-year period, and will be selected based on criteria set for One UP professorial chairs and by a committee of the DECL.

The chair will be funded by a donation of PHP 4.15 million contributed by a donor based in the United States, who wishes to remain anonymous and to be identified only as “a longtime friend of the Philippines.” The donation was coursed through the Friends of the UP Foundation in America (FUPFA), with the assistance of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the UP Foundation.

My department and I are profoundly grateful for this great honor which, until it happened, was something I never imagined would fall on me, especially within my lifetime—and while I’m still in active service, two years’ short of retirement. Professorial chairs are usually set up by wealthy families or corporations in their own names. We have several endowed chairs in the humanities at UP, but this is our first for creative writing, and it will go a long way toward ensuring that young Filipino writers and their work get due recognition. (And just to make it clear, I myself won’t be seeing a single centavo of this generous grant—but that’s all right and as it should be, as I hold another chair.)

I have to admit that I do know the anonymous donor—a dear friend who spent many years in the Philippines and who has written about her experiences here with deep affection and insight. I’ve helped her bring those experiences to fruition as the editor of her books and, she says, her mentor, and later her friend. She could just as easily and more logically have named the chair after herself or her family, as I had urged her to do when she first broached the idea of endowing a chair at UP, but she insisted that it be in my name until I could no longer demur. While she has had no personal connection to UP, her late husband’s developmental work involved UP, and she and her late husband had many friends there—Carlos P. Romulo, Salvador P. Lopez, and Cesar Virata among others—so the chair recognizes those valuable relationships as well.

I can say that while our donor is by no means a Bill Gates or a Rockefeller—she lives modestly by herself in her advancing years—she is unfailingly generous and hospitable whenever Beng and I pay her a visit, and she knows the world (and I do mean the whole wide world, beyond the Worldwide Web) more intimately and more wisely than most people do.

The plans for the chair were put together over the past few months, and we have to thank outgoing UP President Fred Pascual, Vice President for Academic Affairs Giselle Concepcion, UP Foundation Executive Director Gerry Agulto, Friends of the UP Foundation in America Vice-Chair Polly Cortez, and DECL Chair Lily Rose Tope for facilitating the process. (Yes, folks—if you have friends and fellow UP alumni in the US who may want to give donations to UP for various causes, these can be coursed through Ms. Cortez at fupfa.org).

I know she doesn’t want too much of a fuss to be made about this, but once again I’d like to thank my friend for this singular honor, which will long outlive both of us. At current rates, the chair will be endowed for 34 years, although we’ve provided for the necessary adjustments to be made to account for inflation and other supervening circumstances. I look forward to the imminent selection of the first chairholder, who will also be expected to produce a book-length work and to deliver a lecture over his or her tenure. A life in academia has few pleasures, but this is one of them, and one of the best ones—for the recipient, the donor, and the honoree alike.

And this is as good a time as any to say thank you as well to Fred Pascual, Giselle Concepcion, and the other members of the UP System administration, whose six years in service will end with the turnover of the university’s reins to incoming President Danilo “Danicon” Concepcion and his team on February 10. I’m amazed by and rather sad at how quickly those six years have passed. Being a non-academic, Fred Pascual assumed the presidency as a relative unknown and got off to a rocky start, and I was among the vocal critics of some early missteps that could have been avoided with better advice.

But I came to be impressed by how hard Fred and Giselle worked over the years to raise UP to global standards (an initiative still not without its critics, UP being UP) and to expand its reach and resources. And while I never sought or held office under this administration other than the directorship of the Institute of Creative Writing, I was glad to be of some quiet service to Fred and his people when I could. We citizens of the Diliman Republic wish them well, as we look forward to even more achievements (let’s hear it for those Maroons!) under President Danicon and returning UPD Chancellor Mike Tan. Push on, UP!

Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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