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.”

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

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Penman for Monday, April 10, 2017

 

WITH WORK piling up at the office, I’ve increasingly been looking forward to weekends, especially Saturdays, for some fun and leisure. Weeks ahead, I start scouting the cultural horizon for interesting things to do or shows to attend. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Beng and I drove out to Makati to explore the Istorya Vintage Fair at Warehouse Eight—a totally engrossing event that merits its own write-up, which I’ll do in a forthcoming column—before rushing back to Diliman to catch the Ihudyat! marching band competition at the UP Amphitheater.

It was the following Saturday that I’ll write about first, afraid that I might forget some important detail if I wait too long. Indeed, “forget” is the operative word here, because it describes what most people did to our destination: the Boix House (also known as the Teotico-Crespo House) on Ariston Bautista Street in Quiapo, Manila. I tagged along with a posse of UP Fine Arts alumni that included Romy Carlos, Boysie Villavicencio, Ernie Canlas, and Beng—a group that had heard about the house and were interested in seeing if and how they could help in its restoration, perhaps through a benefit art exhibit. (I was delighted to learn later that an old friend, the art dealer and patron Jack Teotico, is a direct descendant of the original house owner and will be pitching in.)

Located in what has become Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, the Boix House is so named because it was acquired by the Boix-Tarradellas family from the Crespos, who got it in turn from the Teoticos. Don Marciano Teotico had the Neo-Renaissance house built in 1895 on what was then Calle Barbosa, and it soon attracted student boarders like the young Manuel Luis Quezon, who reputedly went out partying next door. There, two decades after Don Marciano built his brood a home, would rise the better known and more fortunate Nakpil-Bautista House.

We don’t know what happened next, but at some point, the ownership of the house reportedly passed on to the Society of Jesus, and we lose track of the Boix connection except through the house and what’s been put on the Internet about it—if any reader knows any more, please do share. (I’ve also been wondering about how exactly “Boix” is pronounced; I initially defaulted to the French bwah, but online sources suggest a Spanish or Catalan origin, in which case it would be boish—but then again, what do I know?)

The sad part of this story is how decrepit the Boix House has become, despite the noble efforts of well-meaning organizations such as the Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista to save the house through crowdfunding. Even the World Monuments Fund has taken note of and extended some assistance to the Boix House project (https://www.wmf.org/project/boix-house).

If you pay it a visit like we did, you’ll see why it could use all the help it can get. Just getting across the threshold to the stairs takes—almost literally—a leap of faith: two old doors now serve as creaky planks over which you cross a puddle of water. The wooden stairs and floor are thickly coated with dust and grime; a rat’s carcass molders away in a corner like a forgotten lab specimen. Framed panels provide a history of the house, and tattered flags and ribbons offer proof of some earlier appeals to patriotic fervor. Overall, one’s impression is a commingling of beauty and sadness, the passage not only of time but of care.

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One thing you couldn’t avoid noticing was the fact that while the second floor seemed eerily vacant, it was an entirely different story belowdecks, with the visual evidence of many families crammed into every habitable inch. The undisturbed dust and the odd debris upstairs suggested that the people left that space alone, most of the time, despite the absence of any kind of barrier or restriction. Why? Ghosts? A deep-seated respect of the departed?

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What’s clear is that no restoration project will succeed without taking the house’s present occupants—and indeed the whole neighborhood—into account. Even if you manage to raise the many millions required to return the house to its old glory, its antique opulence will stand in ironic contrast to the very present and very real poverty blighting its surroundings.

The well-preserved Nakpil-Bautista House next door might yield some clues—but not all—to what to do eventually. This ancestral home had seen generations of such notables as the composer Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow. Still maintained by the family and open to public viewing, the house has also served as a home and studio for the past 38 years for master carver Ner Manlaqui, whose religious statues crowd the basement. Priests, churches, and other patrons keep Mang Ner busy, as the half-finished saints and virgins being worked on by his assistants attest to, employing trunks of pale yellow baticulin sourced from faraway Quezon.

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So preserving or reviving the past might necessitate providing for the present, and the cultural activists behind the Boix House project will do well to temper their admirable passion with some dry-eyed pragmatism. Houses are always more than wood and stone, and bringing old ones back to life should also mean ensuring a sustainable future for the people who live in and around them.

I couldn’t have imagined a richer Saturday morning but yet also a more poignant one, spent in the crumbling heart of the city.

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Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou

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Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.

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Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.

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I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”

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Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).

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We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.

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Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

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Penman for Monday, November 28, 2016

 

 

 

A RECENT gallbladder operation and the stitches in four corners of my belly couldn’t stop me from flying down to Iloilo City last week to catch the tail-end of VIVA Excon 2016, which I’d plugged here some time ago but just had to see for myself. The personal reason was that my wife Beng was one of the scheduled speakers, for a session on “Art Conservation and Restoration,” but I’d also heard that VIVA Excon was one of the most successful events of its kind in the country (“probably the only surviving and longest-running Filipino biennale,” VIVA Excon stalwart and chronicler Cecilia Locsin-Nava would emphasize to me). Here’s what I found.

From November 17 to 20, more than 250 artists, speakers, and guests from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Manila gathered at Casa Real in the old provincial capitol of Iloilo to celebrate, interrogate, and propagate art in all its splendorous variety—the important qualifier being that this was new art produced south of Manila. It’s been around since 1990, moving around the major capitals of the Visayas such as Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and of course Iloilo. Surprisingly, it was only the second time that Iloilo hosted VIVA Excon, after a 20-year hiatus, so the local organizers made up for lost time by mounting one of its most vibrant editions ever.

When it started—spurred by the need to create a southern antipode for the arts, given the emergence of such bright new talents as the Negrense painter-sculptor Charlie Co—VIVA Excon had to be funded by the artists themselves, but this year Iloilo’s provincial and city government pitched in to guarantee the event’s success, with help from a host of sponsors led by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). On top of the local planning was painter Rock Drilon, assisted by a corps of wizards and elves who made sure that the dozens of events on the program went off like clockwork. VIVA Excon originals Ed Defensor, Charlie Co, Peewee Roldan, and Cecilia Nava were also around to lend their wisdom and support.

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As its name suggests, VIVA Excon (the “VIVA” stands for Visayas Islands Visual Arts) was at once both an exhibition and a conference. As someone who has helped to organize quite a few literary conferences myself, I was much impressed by the scope and depth of the topics taken up at the conference and by the expertise of the speakers engaged for the occasion, some of them coming from as far as the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I missed most of the earlier sessions, but I would have loved to listen to Ma. Victoria “Boots” Herrera speak on “Museum Practices: What Artists Need to Know”; Silvana Diaz on “Creative Economics: Art Management and Economic Viability”; Elvert Bañares on “Creative Crossover: From Visual Art to Cinema and Back—The Visayan Artists’ Experience”; Rex Aguado on “Art, the Artist, and the Art Collector”; and Patrick Flores on “Art Criticism—Its Value to the Artist and the Artworld.”

Fortunately, I came in time to catch UP art theorist Lisa Ito address issues in writing about the arts—“for what and for whom,” she would say, “beyond the popular writing geared toward the art market, and the academic writing produced by scholars and theorists.” Lisa felt that more writing should be undertaken to “connect artistic production to social contexts and current realities, and developing publics and communities that validate the vitality of art and culture” as well as to “document design practices and projects and to record transient cultural events for future generations—how communities adapt, such as by using tricycles as mobile galleries and by putting up makeshift museums.”

She was followed by New York-based Carina Evangelista whose lecture on “When Forces Shape Form” led the audience to where art has gone far beyond and outside the museum, in performative gestures—often deeply and manifestly political—that emphasized process over product, transience over permanence, and repurposing over originality. (One example: the banknotes that Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles stamped with a political message and circulated in 1970 as a form of mobile graffiti, which nervous recipients couldn’t pass on quickly enough, thereby abetting its purpose.) It was truly a semester’s worth of material packed into 45 minutes on new forms of art from body mutilation to sound and video installation, reminding me of Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on avant-garde poetry just a couple of weeks earlier in Singapore; sometimes you learn the most wonderful things in the oddest places.

Of course, I was happiest and proudest to see Beng onstage walking the audience through the various stages of restoring Amorsolos and Botong Franciscos, and it was clear from the flurry of questions she fielded after her presentation that conservation and restoration were two of the least understood concerns of the art world, yet also two of the most vital if not inevitable. (Sculptor and installation artist Martin Genodepa graciously emceed the presentations.)

Outside the conference hall, three art exhibits were held: a curated one on “Contemporary Art of the Islands” at the UP Visayas Art Gallery, the more freewheeling Visayas Art Fair at Casa Real, and a special retrospective of the late Ilonggo sculptor Timoteo Jumayao at the Museo Iloilo.

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The culminating activity of VIVA Excon was the presentation of the Garbo sa Bisaya award to eight outstanding Visayan artists for excellence in their respective fields: painter Antonio Alcoseba (Cebu); scholar and painter Dulce Cuna Anacion (Leyte); film artist Elvert Bañares (Iloilo); film animator Oliver Exmundo (Iloilo); painter Allain Hablo (Iloilo); multimedia artist Manny Montelibano (Negros Occidental); painter Javy Villacin (Cebu); and painter and scholar Reuben Cañete (Cebu).

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But I’m sure that all the attendees will agree if I suggest that the best part of VIVA Excon was, ultimately, the company of fellow artists, a fraternity forged over beer and music as much as over linseed oil and plaster. Even if I was little more than an onlooker at the event, I was glad to meet up with old friends and acquaintances like Rock Drilon, whose Mag:Net bar and gallery on Katipunan Avenue used to be one of our favorite hangouts. He moved to Iloilo years ago to take care of his ailing mom, and found himself drawn inextricably into the local art scene, until he realized that he was truly home. “Viva should last beyond the Excon,” Rock told me, “so an artists’ cooperative has been organized to sustain the energy sparked by VIVA Excon.”

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Two years from now, the event will be hosted by Roxas City in Capiz. Iloilo could be hard to top, but these Visayans are full of surprises.

Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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