Penman No. 304: Revisiting the Print

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Penman for Monday, May 28, 2018

 

I usually reserve my weekends for truly enjoyable things, like rummaging through Japanese surplus shops or just driving down south for a hearty lunch of steaming bulalo cooled off by fresh buko juice, but there was one event a couple of Saturdays ago that I wasn’t going to miss for the world.

This was “Tirada,” the 50thanniversary retrospective show of the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (A/P, formerly known as the Philippine Association of Printmakers, or PAP) at the CCP. I recently wrote about this group when I brought up my obscure and distant past as a printmaker in the early 1970s, when I’d just stepped out of martial-law prison and was looking for something to do while I didn’t have a real job.

I turned to printmaking for a couple of years to help support myself, and those times at the PAP studio-headquarters on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita turned out to be one of the most instructive and wonderful periods of my life, as I immersed myself in the intricacies—and the backbreaking labors—of printmaking.

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(With Pinoy printmakers Benjie Cabrera, Jess Flores, Bencab, and Egay Fernandez at the AP retrospective.)

Despite its long and glorious history, printmaking remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. The fact that printmakers will often make multiple copies of the same work seems to debase the value of the work in the eyes of art buyers looking for something totally unique, like an oil painting. But printmaking’s great contribution to art was precisely its democratization, by making art accessible to many, beginning with the engravings that illustrated old books and newspapers and lent visual credence to literature and journalism. Prints also adorned books on anatomy, horticulture, geography, and astronomy, among others, without which science could not have progressed.

It was an imaginative step to move from the print as functional appendage to the print as an art form in itself, and many artists took that step because it offered a fascinating alternative, with its own fresh challenges, to the sometimes staid art of painting. Prints require a heavily physical and tactile engagement with one’s tools and materials, like sculpture, working with plates, inks, papers, and presses.

Back in the PAP days—employing techniques that hadn’t changed much since Durer and Rembrandt used them centuries ago—we drew designs on zinc plates coated with an asphalt “ground,” soaked them in nitric acid which ate away the designs, cleaned and inked the plates, then rolled them onto paper under enormous pressures to produce etchings. (Today printmakers use polymer plates, not metal—a technique I’ve yet to learn, not having touched a burin or engraver’s tool in over 40 years. The Japanese, of course, used wood, and others use linoleum and stone for their material.)

The PAP was formed in 1968, led by such pioneers as Manuel Rodriguez, Sr. By the time I found my way to Jorge Bocobo five years later, its regulars included the likes of Orly Castillo, Manolito Mayo, Fil de la Cruz, Jess Flores, Joel Soliven, Rhoda Recto, Petite Calaguas, Benjie Cabrera, Fernando Modesto, Bing del Rosario, and Emet Valente. Some days I’d watch Bencab and Tiny Nuyda at work, or just listen to their banter, which was just as valuable to the salingpusaI was, eager for a whiff of the artistic life (I would become a full-time writer a few years down the road).

Some of those stalwarts have since passed on, but seeing their works on display at the CCP—alongside a whole new generation of brilliant Filipino printmakers—revived happy memories of the kind of camaraderie that AP leader and master printmaker Pandy Aviado referred to in his remarks. Painting can be a lonely art, and perhaps it needs to be, but printmaking typically attracts the collective assistance of others, as physically strenuous as the work can get.

My solitary contribution to the show—a 1975 etching of my grandmother—proudly hung beside one of Bencab’s in the corridor outside the main gallery, but I felt happiest just to share the company of old friends from another branch of the arts that I’d stepped away from, perhaps too quickly. I remembered the sheer exhilaration of lifting the dampened paper off a pressed plate to see one’s design in vivid ink, a joy tempered but also deepened by the intensity of filing away and smoothing out the rough edges of a zinc plate, or inhaling a vinegary cloud of acid, or pouring cold lacquer thinner onto one’s fingers to wash away the grime.

“I wish we had a small etching press at home,” I found myself telling Beng—only to be told by a new acquaintance, the artist Angela Silva, that the renowned Raul Isidro had one, or a few, to sell, having commissioned a raft of them to help spread the faith. I made a beeline for Raul, and then and there reserved myself a unit, with Beng’s blessings.

I’ve decided to return to printmaking in the most old-fashioned way with a technique called drypoint, scratching out my designs with a sharp tool by hand on a copper plate. I can just see how busy my retirement’s going to be a year hence—and how messy. But what a marvelous mess I hope to make.

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(With artist Raul Isidro, receiving my baby press. The print above is Joel Soliven’s “Owl70” from my collection.)

Penman No. 303: A Gentleman of Letters

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2018

 

IT’S BEEN an awful season for writers and lovers of art, as I noted last week. I thought that the passing of Edgardo B. Maranan last May 8 was going to be the last of these woeful events, but no sooner had I spoken at the necrological services for Ed than I was being asked to help put similar rites together for Senator and former UP President Edgardo Angara, who died a few days later on May 13. What an odd coincidence, I thought—first, we lost the two Totis (Bautista and Villalon), and now we were bidding two Eds goodbye.

But among all of those who left us, I felt that it was Ed Maranan whom I knew best. I’d written a biography for Ed Angara, but biographers never really josh their subjects, the way I could do with Ed Maranan. Ed M. invited that, because he dished out a lot of humorous banter himself, even and especially in the worst of times. He could have been in excruciating pain—and I’m sure he was, in his worst days—but he just couldn’t pass up a chance to play with words, as all true writers do.

Most of the eulogies delivered at Ed’s brief wake memorialized and lauded him for his activism—Joma Sison even sent in a statement from Utrecht praising Ed as a “communist,” which he was, at least at some point, as far as I knew. But the Ed I chose to remember was no dour doctrinaire. He loved and enjoyed life immensely (not that communists don’t), and I never heard him spout the Party line; he was too spontaneous, too freely minded, for that.

He was older than me by some eight years, but Ed and I belonged to the same generation of playwrights in Filipino who came of artistic age in the 1970s, a brood that included the likes of Bienvenido Noriega, Bonifacio Ilagan, Nonilon Queaño, Malou Jacob, Reuel Aguila, Rene Villanueva, and Isagani Cruz.

I moved on from writing for the stage to screenwriting later in that decade, thanks to Lino Brocka, and Ed soon asked me if I could help him break into the movies, too. I did—I passed on an assignment that I might have been too busy to do then, a project starring a popular sex siren (and to this day, I wonder why I gave that one away). Later, Ed and I would share another experience—being shafted out of our fees (“nasuba,” in Pinoy screen lingo), and we learned to shrug our shoulders in dismay and disgust.

Our paths crossed again in the mid-1990s, when I got a writing fellowship to Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and had to pass through London—my first trip ever to Europe, or some part of it. Ed had found a job as information officer with our embassy there by that time, and he became my gracious host. Having ushered at the National Theatre, he took me out to free showings of Shaw and Pinter. Having nothing to repay him with, I washed the dishes in his apartment near Goldhawk Road.

We were both named to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 2000. At that point, with 16 Palancas, I stopped joining, and told Ed that it was about time we hung up our gloves. He wasn’t listening. Like his arch-rival Rene Villanueva, he went on and on, until he had racked up more than 30 to Rene’s 27 (Rene sadly passed away in 2007). It wasn’t the prize money, but the exhilaration of joining and winning, with those two.

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A few years ago, in writers’ workshops in Palawan and Puerto Galera, I watched Ed in classic form, charming the ladies with his unstoppable if atrocious puns. I kept rolling my eyes but the ladies kept laughing, much to my growing annoyance. But that was his humor, sly and gentle, as easy on the ears as the guitar he loved to strum.

And then his body began giving up on him, here and there, and he’d message Beng to say, with a rare sigh of sadness, “How the heck did I get a liver problem when I don’t even drink?”

It had been his great dream to go to Hawthornden Castle like I and some other Filipinos had done, and he had been accepted and was all set to leave, but now it was not going to be. Last March, he wrote Hawthornden to say he could barely write with his fingers, and couldn’t come. I could see the deep frustration in his words.

But now he’s off to that great fellowship in the sky with Rene Villanueva, and I hope they hold a celestial edition of the Palancas to keep both guys busy and to settle, once and for all, who the more prolific prizewinner is. Toti Bautista is also going to be there, of course. I hope he enjoys puns because he’s going to get an earful—nay, an eternity of them—from Ed.

So here’s a sad goodbye to a good friend and one of the truest gentlemen of letters I knew. Paalam, kaibigan.

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(Pic from rappler.com)

Penman No. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

THESE PAST few weeks and months have been fraught with loss and sadness, given the passing of many friends and personages in the arts community—National Artist Billy Abueva, National Artist Cirilo Bautista, architect and heritage advocate Toti Villalon, writer Jing Hidalgo’s daughter Lara, and, most recently, poet and inimitable punster Ed Maranan.

It’s in times like these that we seek refuge and relief in what amounts, for many if not most of us, to another realm of life, if not life itself—the world of art. Being inherently transcendent, art has a way of lifting us up and moving us away from often sordid and prosaic reality, reminding us that as ugly as the world can get (often the very subject of art), beauty exists and endures, like love, in the most unlikely places.

And sometimes beauty can be so sublime that it will not only take your breath away but cause you to smile, and even break out in wild laughter. I remember one such moment of sheer exhilaration from about eight years ago when I stepped out of the train in Sta. Lucia station for my first sight of Venice on a bright summer afternoon, and everything was as it would have been in a painting by Turner or Canaletti—not just the canals, gondolas, and cupolas, but the people and the pigeons, the thrum of the vaporettos and the bells of the bicycles darting past me. At that instant, all I could do was laugh, my joy tempered only by the fact that I didn’t bring Beng with me (four years later, on our fortieth anniversary, I made good on a promise and did just that).

Two events in this first quarter of the year provoked a similar response in me.

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The first was a free, open-air concert given last March 23 at the Amphitheater in UP Diliman by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Dr. Herminigildo G. Ranera. The idea was hatched between Cultural Center of the Philippines President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso and UP President Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion. Nick’s a seasoned actor and director and longtime cultural advocate who took charge of the CCP last year with the view of bringing that venerable institution closer to the masses. Danicon, who had also just marked his first year in office, wanted something fresh and inspiring to happen on campus to buoy people’s spirits up and spur cultural appreciation in the community. Backstopping both was former UP Diliman College of Music dean and tenor Ramon “Montet” Acoymo, who helped put a program together for the PPO in UP.

The brief was simple, but surely a nightmare to execute: bring the PPO’s 58 members to the backside of Quezon Hall facing the amphitheater, where graduations are usually held, fill up that sprawling space with people, and have the PPO perform a program of light classics that everyone could relate and hum along to. Oh—and find sponsors to foot the bill, to do away with tickets and invite even slipper-shod retirees and children to enjoy the music on the grass, under the stars.

And that’s exactly what happened. Like magic—with pieces ranging from the William Tell Overture and Les Miserables to Star Wars and Despacito—the PPO serenaded the spillover crowd and proved, once again—despite the turmoil and clamor of politics—that music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, as the poet said. Thank you, Nick, Danicon, and the PPO for the rare treat—and folks, await a Yuletide reprise, which is being planned out as I write.

My second moment of wonderment came when Beng and I stepped last week into the new (and still ongoing) exhibit of painter Fernando “Mode” Modesto at the downstairs gallery of the Globe Tower in BGC, care of the Hiraya Gallery. Titled “Bliss from Bygone Days,” the exhibit celebrates “euphoria, delight, and rapture,” but I didn’t need to read the liner notes to know that. I felt it the minute I paused in front of a painting like “Khartoum”—a lemony depiction of two angels playing with a ball, and my favorite of the lot alongside “Bali,” a blue sky streaked with orange and yellow. They’re paintings you could stare at, smiling, for hours.

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I’d known Mode since the mid-1970s when I hung out at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio in Ermita, and he was an enfant terrible shocking matrons with his paintings of airborne phalluses. He still shocks today—but with an exuberant wit, a brazen intent to make the viewer smile and be happy despite the tribulations of life in the age of tokhang. Even when he uses black, Mode’s subversive humor pops up, insect-like.

I often ask my writing students, “Where’s the humor in our fiction? Why is every damn story I get a self-obsessed and anguished one of defeat and despair? Sure, life sucks—but I already know that. Can’t you bring me somewhere we haven’t been—like a happiness I can believe in?”

That’s where I thought I was when I stepped into Mode’s works; too bad I had to step back out into the world again.

Penman No. 296: My Past as a Printmaker

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Penman for Monday, April 2, 2018

 

EVERY NOW and then I get a reminder from somewhere very far that, at one point in my past, I led a very different life and might have gone down another path altogether.

Last month I received a message from a gentleman in England, asking me if I knew the artist of a print he had acquired, an etching of a water buffalo with a bird perched on his back, dated 1974, titled “Katuwaan Lang,” and signed by a “j y dalisay jr.” I received similar inquiries from two ladies in the States back in 2008 and 2015, who both sent me pictures of prints I hadn’t seen in decades.

Yes, I told them all, once upon a time I worked as a printmaker, and it happened this way.

In January 1973, I was arrested by the military for alleged subversion—I was 18, a college dropout, and a fledgling reporter for the Philippines Herald and Taliba—and was thrown, along with a couple hundred other inmates, into a detention camp somewhere in what people now smartly call Bonifacio Global City. Back then it was just the Ipil Rehabilitation Center, a repurposed Army barracks enclosed in barbed wire.

Among my fellow detainees—aside from the likes of Jojo Binay, Orly Mercado, and Zeus Salazar—was the artist Orlando “Orly” Castillo, who organized an Artists’ Group which conducted sketching sessions and painted and sold little souvenir items to our Sunday visitors. Not knowing how long we were going to be detained—I for one was never arraigned or tried in court, although I was interrogated and beaten up—I signed up with the group, having done a bit of drawing since grade school.

As it turned out, I would be released after seven months (“Go pack your bags, we have nothing on you,” said the officer). Instead of returning to school in UP—which I found deathly quiet and unconducive to learning—I sought out Orly, who had been released earlier, and joined him and a group of new friends at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio and gallery at 1680 Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, Manila.

It was really little more than a big box at the far end of a lot, but it housed an etching press, and I learned printmaking on that press just by watching the regulars going through the motions of coating zinc plates with asphalt “ground,” drawing their designs on the ground, soaking the plates in a bath of nitric acid, inking the plates, and printing copies of the artwork off them under the rolling press. I looked over the shoulders of people like the late Manolito Mayo, Tiny Nuyda, Joel Soliven, Bing del Rosario, Fil de la Cruz, Ronald Veluz, and Emet Valente. (Yes, most of the regulars there were guys, although Petite Calaguas, Adiel Arevalo, and Ivi Avellana-Cosio would also come by.) Sometimes Bencab dropped in, and I was very happy when he remarked kindly on one of my etchings of a boat in Romblon harbor.

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I did etchings like everybody else, but my preferred technique was drypoint, which meant scratching and digging the design straight onto the zinc plate with nothing more than the needle of a compass. My fingers would get so sore they nearly bled, but drypoint lent the work a certain delicacy of line that you couldn’t get with nitric acid. For inspiration, I turned to the pages of E. S. Lumsden’s 1926 classic The Art of Etching, a copy of which I still keep.

I became a printmaker for a while, not just because I loved the craft and the company, but because I was jobless. Selling prints in bulk to a dealer who sold them framed to US servicemen sustained me through that lean season. The prints sold for maybe just 15 or 20 pesos each, but a few hundred went a long way then.

At some point I won an honorable mention for the drypoint print of a farmer, and served as Vice President of PAP under Lito Mayo—not for any abundance of artistic talent (I was way too conservative to amount to much), but, I suspect, because of my way with words, a facility I have found useful to this day. But inevitably life’s other challenges caught up.

It was at the PAP where I met my wife to be, a pretty girl named June, and I courted her with letters handwritten with a Mars Lumograph and, of course, a drypoint portrait I made of her. A few months after we met, we were married—but not before I managed to find a more stable job, at my mother’s insistence, this time as a writer for the National Economic and Development Authority, just around the corner.

The PAP has long left J. Bocobo and all I have from those days is a small album of about a dozen stray prints, but I still feel a surge of fraternity whenever I meet Bencab, Tiny, Ivi, and the other true masters of the art. I like to think that I’ve ported over my sense of imagery and detail to my writing. We can always hope that here or elsewhere, in whatever form, the art will survive the artist; ars longa, vita brevis. (That’s my grandmother Mamay below, in and etching with drypoint and aquatint.)

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Penman No. 293: Adventures in Bookhunting (2)

 

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Penman for Monday, March 12, 2018

 

I HAD an interesting exchange online recently with a forum member who was responding to my call for old, interesting books that people wanted to sell. I’d explained that by “old,” I meant books from at least the early 1900s, and preferably from the 1800s (my collection includes books and documents from the 1700s, 1600s, and 1500s, but in the Philippine context, 18-something should be old enough).

I got a text from this nice fellow who said that he had a complete set of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1768 to sell to me. I’d specifically stated in my ad that I wasn’t interested in buying encyclopedias, Bibles, and law books. But the message pricked my attention because, as unlikely as finding any book from the 1700s might be in the Philippines, my oldest book—a work in English on the history of institutions, published in London in 1551 and still in very good condition—actually turned up in Cubao. So I wasn’t about to brush off a lead offhand; the strangest things have emerged from local sources in my antiquarian forays.

The seller swore that the set had been in his family for generations, and that it had come down to him from his Lola Filomena. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.) All right, I thought—that at least was a good sign, the stamp of age. Might the books have been brought to Manila by a British trader in the 1800s (the encyclopedia hadn’t been published yet when they occupied Manila in 1762-64), then acquired by Lola Filomena’s buena familia forbears? I was thrilled by the possibilities, and asked the seller to send me a picture of the set. (The set below is from nbc.com, but it looked like it.)

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Of course, as soon as it arrived, all my silly hopes were dashed, as I saw a pile of crisp volumes that looked very much like the set I owned back in college. The seller confirmed that the set, indeed, was published in 1970, but that it was truly and surely the original 1768 edition. “Look,” he said with more than a hint of exasperation, “it says Copyright 1768!” I tried to explain the difference between copyright dates and editions (the 15thedition in 2010 was the Britannica’s last printed version). But my textmate wouldn’t budge. “My Lola Filomena wouldn’t lie!” he insisted. I wanted to scream, “But your lola wasn’t alive in 1768!”, but I let it go at that, and thanked him for his time, and for his patience with a curmudgeon.

One of the most frequently asked questions online with regard to old books is “How much is my 1768 Britannica set worth?” Inevitably they show modern editions, not worth very much beyond the priceless knowledge they contain. A facsimile edition came out in 1971 and would itself by now have some value, but let’s face it—a copy’s a copy. Here’s a quick way of being sure that your plastic-covered, 30-volume Britannica set isn’t that old: the 1768 original had only three volumes (oddly broken down into A-B, C-L, and M-Z). Here’s a picture from YouTube of the real 1768 set:

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A great find last week—aside from the 1961 first edition of Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels—was the maiden (March 1962) issue of The Philippine Colophon, “published quarterly by the Philippine Booklovers Society.” I’d never heard of the PBS before, but its roster of members included such dignitaries as Antonio Abad (the poet Jimmy’s dad), Teodoro Agoncillo, Encarnacion Alzona, Gabriel Bernardo (the UP librarian who helped safeguard leftist documents in the ‘50s), Alberto Florentino, Amado Hernandez, Serafin Lanot (the poet Marra’s dad, and proprietor of Tamaraw Press), Benito Legarda Jr., Charito Planas, and Leopoldo Yabes.

The lead article alone was worth the issue—“Filipiniana Treasures Abroad” by Domingo Abella, a physician-turned-historian who became director of the National Archives. Dr. Abella provides a comprehensive and personally annotated list of foreign libraries—from the US and Mexico to Spain, the UK, Japan, and Macau. He talks about poking around the bookshops in Kanda Street in Tokyo, finding books on the Philippines authored by Western writers.

At a dinner party last weekend, I sat beside a well-known collector who recounted how, back in the day, you could acquire a true first edition of the Noli and Fili and the full 55-volume 1909 edition of Blair and Robertson without hocking the family jewels. “There aren’t too many of us looking for these old books,” he mused. Not few enough, I thought, and indeed, the fewer the better, from the rabid collector’s viewpoint, despite my professed belief in the charitable sharing of knowledge.

Speaking of which, do attend the free public lecture of the renowned bookbinder Mark Cockram at the Ortigas Foundation Library on Thursday, March 15 at 6 pm. He will also hold a workshop on bookbinding for beginners at the OFL on March 13-14. For details, email ortigasfoundation@ortigas.com.ph.

 

Penman No. 279: That Schoolboy Spirit

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Penman for Monday, November 27, 2017

 

UNTIL A couple of Saturdays ago, the last basketball shot I saw in a live full-court game was taken by the greatest of them all—Michael Jordan. This was sometime in 1989 or 1990; I was a graduate student in Milwaukee, and my friend Peter enticed me out of Shakespeare class, waving an extra ticket to the Bucks-Bulls game at the downtown arena. MJ was in town—it was literally going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch an NBA game, with Michael Jordan playing, for free. Screw Macbeth! MJ did not disappoint; with the Bulls trailing by two in the final minute, he sank a three-pointer in the final seconds, and while we were supposed to be Bucks fans, we all jumped in our seats to cheer him, screaming our heads off.

I’ve never been a huge basketball fan, although I very briefly covered the MICAA for a newspaper in the pre-PBA days and followed the NBA back when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor. But I vicariously enjoy sport in all its varieties, from American football and baseball to boxing and badminton, as much from the game itself as from watching the players and the other watchers. There’s something about a surge going through a crowd that senses something magical about to explode on the arena or the court that lights a long-dormant fuse in me and brings me back to my boyhood, when my father took me to the Besa Boxing Arena and the Rizal Coliseum for an afternoon’s throaty mayhem.

So I could hardly resist when a friend from grade school, who’s so modest I have to call him by his initials JV, invited me and the La Salle Green Hills gang to watch the La Salle-Ateneo game at the Big Dome last November 12. Ever the resourceful fellow (which explains his success in business), JV had managed to secure a certain number of tickets that enabled an impromptu reunion of some guys in our Viber group.

Of course every Pinoy barkada thinks of itself as special, but this one had a genuine claim to fame: our class was accelerated twice, saving us precious time. (And money, for those rarities—destitute La Sallites—like me.) I’ve written about my La Salle sojourn (Prep-Grade 7, 1960-66) elsewhere, the sum of which is, it’s the school I owe my preparation as a writer to, not to mention the supportive friendship of some very fine gentlemen. I went on to the Philippine Science High School, UP, and grad school in America, but I always treasured my schoolboy years in Green Hills and the love of books and language that they left me with.

How much better could it get? One minute I’m watching His Airness drop a game-winning trey, and nearly 30 years later I’m holding a golden ticket to the biggest game of the season so far. (Lest I be accused of treason to UP—which I should be cheering, after all, as a university official—I just haven’t had a chance to attend a live game yet, but was following and rooting for them all the way on the S&A channel, and I promise to come courtside next season.)

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First, we had to dress for the occasion, and while most of my buddies had closets full of green shirts, green socks, and presumably green underwear (JV even wore electric green sneakers), I had to reconnoiter several malls and department stores the week before the game to locate the perfect XXL polo shirt in shamrock green. We assembled four hours before gametime for a long and leisurely lunch in a nearby restaurant—for some of us, our first reunion in over 50 years, a long green-shirted line of seniors who’d last seen each other in khaki shorts, talking maintenance meds over crispy pata and cerveza negra. (Here’s one to us, guys—JV, Billy, Beyey, Dennis, Butch DG, Toffy, Mike, Conrad, and Jun!)

No matter how inured you might be to sports and competition, there’s no way you can escape the peculiar tingle and sizzle of a La Salle-Ateneo game, from the minute the drums unleash their tom-tom thunder from way up in the bleachers to the second the final buzzer sounds and sends half the gallery into hysteria while plunging the other half in utter despair.

It’s a rivalry that they say goes back to 1939, when La Salle beat Ateneo for the NCAA championship for the first time (27-23—sounds more like a halftime score these days). It’s come a long way since, and I don’t know who’s keeping track of the historic score, but every La Salle-Ateneo game feels like the deciding match of a best-of-three finals, going by the sheer electricity around the arena.

The last time I was at the Araneta Coliseum was two years ago to watch a revival concert of the Zombies; well, this was anything but a zombie crowd. Between spotting all the celebrities in the stands, appreciating the, uhm, fine art of cheerleading, and trying to catch up with new cheers and fight songs that I’d never mouthed before, it was sensory overload for a solid hour, an excursion into a culture I’d read about but had never visited.

I won’t bother you with the details of the game itself, which predictably went the cardiac route, with the Archers going down by as much as 12 in the third quarter, only to unload a 10-0 bomb in the closing minutes that led to an extremely satisfying outcome, 79-76, and just like that afternoon in Milwaukee nearly three decades gone, I found myself screaming and shaking like a broken radiator.

On the way out of the coliseum, a foot-wide grin still plastered to my face, I met a couple of blue-shirted colleagues from academia, whose baleful looks I couldn’t (and didn’t really want to) banish with my most effusive greetings.

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Penman No. 276: A Storyteller Returns

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Penman for Monday, November 6, 2017

 

I EDIT a lot of books and manuscripts in the course of my work as a professional writer, mostly for institutions like banks, NGOs, government agencies, airlines, and even accounting firms. These people need help with their corporate communications, and I’m glad to lend a hand.

But now and then I get asked to edit a book of a more personal nature—a memoir, an autobiography, a travelogue, or a collection of essays—and when that happens I have to think twice about taking the job on, because these personal projects require a certain compatibility—almost an intimacy—between the writer and the editor. While institutional work is largely impersonal—the very reason I prefer it—editing someone’s life-work demands close familiarity with and sensitivity to the author’s character and concerns. That can be difficult, which is why I’ve declined many such invitations, unwilling to engage in so taxing a process.

There’s been one person, however, for whom I’ve edited four books—each one of them formidably full-length and chockful of detail. I have to admit—and she will agree—that the job has involved careful line-by-line editing and restyling. That’s easy to explain: she’s a terrific storyteller, but English wasn’t her first language—she also speaks Arabic, Greek, French, Dari, at least one other language—so she does need an editor, and she found me.

That happened 15 years ago through the intervention of a mutual friend, Jimmy Laya. He had a good friend in the United States, he said, whose husband had just passed away and who wanted to write a book about her life with him, a life that had taken them around the world and to the Philippines, where they had spent many good years. It seemed interesting enough, so I said yes.

And so began what became a unique friendship for me and my wife Beng with Mrs. Julie Hill, an Alexandrian Greek born and raised in Egypt but who moved to the US for her master’s degree in chemistry, then spent the next many decades traveling the globe with her husband Arthur, an official of the Ford Foundation. Later, Julie herself would become a telecommunications executive—and, after Arthur’s passing, an inveterate traveler trekking the Mongolian desert, the Afghan hills, the Russian steppes, the valleys of Papua New Guinea, and the Norwegian fjords.

Out of that life and those travels came four books, all of which I would edit: A Promise to Keep: From Athens to Afghanistan (2003), The Silk Road Revisited: Markets, Merchants and Minarets (2006), and Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery (2014). Her newest, In the Afternoon Sun: My Alexandria (2017), was launched just last week in Makati, again through the kind auspices of Jimmy Laya and the Society for Cultural Enrichment, which Jimmy serves as vice-chair, and which published Julie’s book.

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Despite her aches and pains—as any octogenarian globetrotter is bound to suffer—Julie flew in from Southern California to be with old friends like the Cesar Viratas and the Francis Estradas and to give thanks to Angola Consul Helen Ong, who graciously hosted the launch, and to Ambassadors Ahmed Abdelaziz Ezzat and Kaimenakis Nikolaos of Egypt and Greece, respectively. Of course she also gave special thanks to her cover artist, June Dalisay, and to her editor—who, sadly, had to fly to Thailand at the last minute on a mission for his university.

It may seem that My Alexandria—Julie’s haunting memoirs of her childhood years in that vanished cosmopolis—would have very little to do with us Filipinos (A Promise to Keep has some very sharp vignettes of expatriate life here under the Marcoses), and Julie herself had expressed serious doubt about its worth as a book, but I had urged her strongly to press on with it, convinced that its evocation of a place and time where cultures and religions could get along so well was what our fractured world today needed to see.

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Of all her books, it was frankly the hardest to work on, as I challenged her to go into sometimes painful detail; our relationship had long gone past editor and client, well past discussing fees, and I wanted this book to be the crowning glory of her authorial career. Here and there, as any editor would, I worked on tenses, participles, and modifiers; but what rewards the dutiful editor is a natural writer who sees what’s worth seeing, and Julie Hill has been just that, as this passage from an earlier book chronicling her journey over the Silk Road (taken when she was in her seventies!) reveals—simple in language, but bright and articulate with emotion. (You can find all her books on Amazon.)

Night had fallen; it was a bright full moon. The sky bristled with stars; but it remained bluish gray, unlike the black velvet firmament of Rajasthan or the Sulu Archipelago. Constellations tipped at an unfamiliar angle. A shooting star! It had been years since I viewed one, and it was a good omen for the trip.

 At dawn I stepped outside my ger. It was a soft morning with the sun rising behind high clouds. Seized by the clarity and the silence, I stood and listened. Not a breath of wind, not a sound from the gravel paths of our encampment, no machine whirring, no horse snorting, no voice coming from the nearby gers, no bird calling. I felt that I was in one of the emptiest places on earth.

 Freed of distraction I held my breath and listened to my own heartbeat; I sensed nothing. There was no wind to move the clouds or dust or bushes. No sound, no movement, no scent, no warmth yet in the sun, no cold remaining in the air. The only sensation was through the eyes: the desert, the mountains, and the hills. This was the Gobi. I wondered if it was possible to be happier.

 Welcome back, Julie, and from here, happy trails!

 

Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

The first time I saw Bali was 34 years ago. I was a much younger man, then only 29, an eager participant in a writers’ conference organized by F. Sionil Jose, in the company of other Filipinos who included, as far as I can remember, the late Rey Duque, Marjorie Evasco, Charlson Ong, and Fanny Llego. We spent a week in a villa on the steamy banks of Lake Batur, far away from the tourist traps of Denpasar and Ubud, which we would visit only at the very end of our trip.

It was my first time to attend an international gathering of writers, and I was deeply impressed by all the big names I met, aside from Manong Frankie himself—our host, the scholar S. Takdir Alisjabanah, among the pillars of Bahasa Indonesia; the Singaporean poet and professor Edwin Thumboo; the Malaysian poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra; and the Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim. I can’t recall a thing I said in the impassioned discussions that took place; that first time, it was all about listening and imbibing the wisdom of the masters in an environment that could not have been more conducive to inspiration.

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The lake was a caldera, which explained the hot springs simmering on its fringes, where we joined the unabashed Balinese in their early-morning ablutions; at night, we argued literature under the spell of the stars and the aptly named Bintang beer, to the faint accompaniment of a gamelan symphony. The one discordant note that I would later write about in a short story was an ill-advised sortie across the lake to a private graveyard, which the locals resented; but even that was a writerly touch, an almost obligatory twist to a near-perfect plot. And rightly so: back home, Ninoy and EDSA had yet to happen, and the country was seething in the darkness.

These memories swarmed through my senses last week when I returned to Bali for yet another literary conference, the tenth annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), the region’s largest and most active literary network. Hosted by the Ganesha University of Education in the city of Singaraja in the northern part of the island, the conference brought together about a hundred delegates from all over, but mostly from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, and, of course, the Philippines, which has always figured prominently in this organization (I sit on its Advisory Board). With me were UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, the essayist and playwright Luna Sicat-Cleto, the poet and translator Randy Bustamante, and my wife the art restorer Beng, an avid observer and fully paid member of APWT.

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Even the most jaded of writers can’t be faulted for flying into Bali and expecting a bit of paradise, and the island and its people can still deliver on that promise in spades. The manicured rice terraces, the monkeys lining the road, the meticulously patterned garlands, the whiskery banyan trees, the uncountable temples and altars—and let’s not forget the scenically smoldering Mount Agung on the horizon—all suggest transport to another realm of blissful serenity. That illusion, of course, was broken fifteen years ago by catastrophic terror bombings that took more than 200 lives, and in the course of our three-day conference, testimonials by our Balinese friends themselves would reveal certain painful realities behind the festive façade.

“It’s very difficult to be a Balinese woman,” more than one of them said (I’m pooling their voices together, as in a chorus). “People expect you just to be a pretty flower. I have a PhD and I make more than my husband, but I still have to appear subordinate to him and to his wishes, and I have to serve him at home, making his coffee and serving his clothes. When I received a fellowship abroad, people congratulated my husband, instantly assuming that it was his achievement and not mine—and I had to smile and say nothing about it. You know why I write in English? Because my husband can’t read English, so English liberates me, allows me to express my true feelings.”

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Another intriguing panel I attended took up “Nostalgia and the Asian City,” and the discussion dwelt on how cities like Hong Kong and Singapore had changed in the literary imagination. But, from the floor, I had to interject the Philippine experience and note how nostalgia in many other places like ours referred to a longing for an unspoiled rural Eden that no longer exists, an unrecoverable if not fact an imaginary past. Over lunch, I pursued the point: nostalgia is being used as a powerful political tool, such as in defense of a mythical “better time under martial law” to support a restoration of that regime.

I was assigned to a panel devoted to protest literature, and found myself grouped with three Australians who spoke on their respective struggles as immigrant, aborigine, and bohemian writers. I chose to speak about our history of protest literature and what a deadly business it was. So, our moderator asked in the end, what were we personally doing to upend the status quo? The status quo for me, I said, was darkness and despair, and it was winning out even in literature, so that there’s nothing easier to write these days than another sad and dismal story. Therefore, I would strive to write happy stories—stories with a believably, hard-won, happy ending—as my form of resistance. We have to fight for joy as much as justice; we have to keep fighting for happiness, hope, and beauty in this age of Trump and tokhang—what else were we persisting for?

As I said those words—which I had not expected to say, but had long been coming around to saying—I felt all of my 63 years, hoping perhaps that some young soul in that audience was truly listening.

 

 

Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

THE LAST time I saw Wash SyCip was from a far distance. It was his 95th birthday on June 30, 2016, and a long line of well-wishers—businessmen, politicians, and other celebrities—had queued up at the ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati to greet him and have their pictures taken with the icon. I thought for a second about falling in line, just to say hello, but then decided against it, already having spent more time with Wash than most people except his closest associates. He looked more frail than I had ever seen him, even as he kept up a cordial countenance seated in his chair on a raised dais, and I felt content to remember the sprightlier octogenarian I had first met a decade earlier.

Of course I knew who Washington SyCip was well before then; my wife Beng worked as an artist in the communications department of SGV in the 1980s, but I had never met the man himself—not until an opportunity arose to bid for and to write his biography in early 2006, when he was turning 85. I felt very fortunate to have been chosen for the job—and that’s what it was to me then, a job, albeit one involving an illustrious subject. I had no inkling that I was about to enter into a privileged friendship, something that would extend well beyond the writing of a book.

I had already done books for and about other personages in politics and business, and would do many more after Wash. But none of them—meaning no disrespect to or disregard for my other clients—would come close to the biography I would write for Wash, and it had everything to do with the uniqueness of the man, who lived not only an extraordinarily long life but also one far more colorful than you would credit an accountant for.

For months, we met Saturday mornings in his seventh-floor SGV office, and chatted for a couple of hours about phases of his life, proceeding chronologically from his childhood to the key decision to open his own accounting firm, a moment that I would later decide to open the book with. (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper was published in 2009 by the SGV Foundation and the Asian Institute of Management, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.) Immediately I felt at ease with his polite formality; no artificial chumminess there or dramatic flourish, just a quiet consistency of well-remembered detail, everything from trying to learn the foxtrot for a graduation dance and breaking Japanese codes in Calcutta to carrying a cold, dressed duck under his arm on the New York subway to bring to a lady friend.

Most readers, I’m sure, were looking for the grand contours, the big business decisions—and there’s all that in the book—but I tried to keep things homely, and was glad that Wash was game for it. He liked to play “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on his iPod—but not being a techie, often forgot to recharge it.

When he learned that I collected pens, he sent a bunch of them over to my house; I opened the box and saw that he had gifted me with some very nice ballpoints, which I thanked him for. When a perceptive associate gently reminded him that I collected not ball pens but fountain pens, he sent another box of the correct writing instruments—CEOs like him typically received scores of these as gifts and stored them away in drawers—with an apologetic note, even more graciously acknowledged by the ecstatic recipient. And every Christmas we would receive a box filled with some lovely piece of décor handcrafted by a microenterprise he supported in Cebu.

He had a soft spot for Filipino talent of all kinds. He once hosted a party at his home for President Cory Aquino, some ambassadors, and similarly lofty people. After dinner, he sprung a surprise on them. “Just get into your cars and follow me!” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. He led the convoy to a dimly downscale stretch of Boni Avenue, down into the happy maw of Club Mwah, the gay musical revue. Cory had a blast, and I had fun watching Wash garlanded by that feathery parade.

Sometimes I dropped by his office or chatted with him in the corner of a soirée to hear him share his views on current goings-on, both of us probably thinking that they would be useful inputs to the centennial update of his biography, but really just to catch up. It was these unscripted asides, his inviting trust, that I felt most privileged by. I suppose biographers come in through some special door, and with Wash, that door always seemed open.

Last July I received an envelope from Wash, and even without opening it I could feel that it contained a pen inside. “Dear Butch,” said the accompanying note, “This is the only pen that I have come across which may be new to your library. Just note the owl at the head of the pen. Sincerely, Wash.” It was a ballpoint, but I didn’t mind—owls (and turtles) were his trademark avatars.

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His generosity was well known, but it was never the showy or sentimental kind. He believed above all in the capability of the poor to learn and to lift themselves up with a little help. Despite the American citizenship he had to accept in a time of war, he thought and acted as a true global Filipino.

When he passed away last week on a plane above the Pacific—bridging the two shores he knew best, and still on the job at 96—I was requested to draft an obituary, and I replied, choking, that it was going to be my honor. It was the first—and, almost certainly, the only—time I would shed a tear for someone I wrote about.

Penman No. 272: A Poet of Nature

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Penman for Monday, October 9, 2017

 

 

IT’S NATIONAL Artist season again, with the deadline for nominations for the next group of NAs falling last September 30. It’s a triennial exercise that raises some very fundamental questions about how the arts figure in our national life and consciousness, and what we value in art.

There’ll surely be an impressive roster of nominees to review, each name with its own merits to recommend it. But among all those presumptive candidates, the one I’ll be rooting for is a lanky, genial, youthful-looking septuagenarian who goes simply by the name “Junyee,” short for the Luis E. Yee, Jr. that only his family and closest friends probably know.

I’ve known Junyee and his work for some time now, but I was even more impressed by its breadth and quality as I listened to him address a large crowd that had gathered for the launch of his artistic biography Wood Things at the CCP lobby last Tuesday.

Like many artists, Junyee has a certain shyness about him that prevents more aggressive self-advertisement, so let me sing his praises for him in the hope that he finally gets the recognition due his lifetime of labors.

If you’ve never met him but read the book (written with grace and deep insight by the equally gifted artist Jose “Bogie” Tence Ruiz), the first thing that will strike you will be the life itself, the engrossing narrative of how a boy born in the hinterlands of northern Mindanao at the height of the Japanese Occupation nurtured a native talent that would, much later in life, see his works celebrated in France, Cuba, Israel, Japan, and Australia, among other cultural capitals.

The boy drew his first inspirations from the bales of scrap paper his father imported to use as wrappers in their general store, bundles that contained American and local comics depicting worlds far removed from Agusan del Norte. Later moving to Cebu, he found a job with a funeral parlor, first as a janitor and a clerk, then as a beautician for corpses, and later as an embalmer, all the while ogling the art supplies in the local department store, never yielding his dream.

In 1964, he received a scholarship to study Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, and apprenticed with the renowned sculptor and later National Artist Napoleon “Billy” Abueva. The opportunity opened Junyee’s eyes to a whole new world of modernism, and eventually he broke out on his own, even as the prevailing forces of the 1970s—the psychotropic seductions of Carlos Castañeda on the one hand and the First Quarter Storm on the other—pulled him in different directions. While Junyee held progressive sentiments, Tence Ruiz notes that “He was inherently a maverick individualist who, while recognizing the need for collective actions to affect change, saw how formulaic and uncreative propaganda could get.”

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And that’s key to the kind of visionary and yet also political art Junyee would produce over the next four decades—an art that manifests an abiding love of life, and of nature as the bringer of that life. In his preface to the book, artist Hugo Yonzon III writes that “The dominant and recurring theme of his installation is nature or, more precisely, the respect for it. There is none of the theatrics of LED lights or the electronic sounds that characterize such art especially in the Western world. A twig, a pod, a tree bark, local hemp, and then some. Period.”

“Installation” is a word that would inextricably be attached to Junyee’s art, as he explored and promoted the genre well before the term itself became fashionable, always and again drawing on nature for his materials and inspiration, from the seminal Balag of 1970 to the installations now dotting the campuses of Diliman and Los Baños, in which latter place he has found his literal and spiritual home, amid the trees and rocks that he never sees just as objects but as bearers of messages, like the 10,000 tombstone-like stumps of wood he laid out on the CCP grounds in 2007 to bemoan illegal logging and the catastrophic flooding it induced.

Junyee is a master sculptor and painter, and a wordsmith as well—his sensitive lyrics add a more personal touch to the book—but he is, ultimately, a poet of nature, who can make wood and stone speak and sing in joy, sorrow, and just the sheer excitement of living.

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Speaking of artists, let me draw your attention to a younger painter in mid-career by the name of Lotsu Manes, whose seventh one-man exhibit titled “Handumanay” (after the Visayan word for keepsake or memorial) is now running at the Eskinita Gallery on the 2nd floor of Makati Cinema Square until October 23.

We’d known Lotsu since he was a small boy running on the beach of our hometown in Alcantara, Romblon, and took notice when he won the Grand Prize in the Shell Art Competition of 1996. “Handumanay” shows him maturing well beyond the meticulous craftsmanship that distinguished his earlier work to a more conceptual understanding of time and memory, and of the preciousness of what remains in his termite-ravaged portraits and landscapes.

At the opening, I was also glad to speak with curator and sculptor Renato “Ato” Habulan, who has been mentoring younger artists like Lotsu toward a less technical and more philosophical appreciation of their own work and vision.

Seeing Lotsu in his prime, chatting with Ato Habulan, and applauding Junyee at his book launch all left me warmly reassured that—even and especially in these terror-stricken times—art, like music as the poet Congreve put it, “hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.”