Penman No. 298: Books with Back Stories (1)

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2018

 

AS I’VE been chronicling here these past few months, my fascination late in life with antiquarian books and documents has led me to some wonderful, intriguing, and often serendipitous discoveries. And as I’ve been saying, I’m a scavenger, not a scholar, so I will just as likely come across and even pick up junk as I will, now and then, a jewel. My most recent acquisitions have included a gorgeous Atlas de Filipinas from 1900 in very fine condition, early editions of the Noli and Fili published in Spain, a booklet of original sketches by one of the illustrators of Puck magazine from 1889, an illustrated travel book on Luzon and Palawan from 1887 by Alfred Marche, and a signed first edition of a book by one of my most admired authors, John Updike.

As much as possible, I seek out books that have some connection to the Philippines and its history and culture. If possible—and when I can afford it—I choose the first or earlier editions, signed by the authors, to establish some personal connection to the work at its very origins. It’s a fancy fetish, for sure, more than anything; you can often legally download the entire text for free online, and gain as much scholarship from that file. But there’s nothing like holding a book that the author himself or herself held and even scribbled his or her name on with a fountain pen (or a quill pen, in the case of my 300-year-old volumes with marginal notations in fine sepia ink). It returns you to how personal the act of writing and publishing can be, in this age of e-books and PDFs.

A few weeks ago, for example, I jumped on a book that turned up in Texas, a 1948 facsimile copy of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana, the very first book printed in the Philippines (a personal encounter with which I reported on here four years ago, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC). Facsimiles are interesting but generally passed over by collectors—you can still get a facsimile of the Doctrina locally for P250—but this one had a very special value. Not only was it published by the LOC very soon after the book (the only copy known to exist) resurfaced in Paris after the war and was donated to the LOC, proof that the LOC knew exactly how rare it was; but this copy was inscribed in green ink by Lessing J. Rosenwald to George L. McKay. Rosenwald happened to be the book collector who acquired the Doctrina and donated it, along with many other rarities, to the LOC; McKay was another well-known bibliophile. So this copy shows—against a suggestion I’d heard that Rosenwald didn’t know what he was buying—that Rosenwald prized the Doctrina highly enough to gift its facsimile to his collector-friends.

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That Doctrina facsimile has joined my collection, but another outstanding book didn’t, just when I thought it would. I’d won the bidding for a first edition, with dust jacket, of William Pomeroy’s The Forest (International Publishers, 1963). This is the book that, whenever I’m asked “Which book has influenced you the most?”, I give as an answer. It was my reading back in high school of this American GI-turned-Communist guerrilla’s lyrical and moving account of his time with the Huks in the mountains of Luzon that inflamed me to join the nationalist movement. Pomeroy met and married the Filipina Celia Mariano; they were captured, imprisoned, and later led a long life of exile in the UK, where they died not too long ago in their 90s. I already had a first edition of The Forest, but this copy was inscribed by Pomeroy to their friends Bill and Ranjana Ash—another storied couple, dedicated Marxists whose lives are well worth Googling. Sadly I later got a note from the seller that he could no longer find the book in his shop, and refunded me. What a loss!

Sometimes I don’t buy the book, but take note of some very interesting details about it. For example, I came across a work on Philippine fisheries, “Bangos Culture in the Philippine Islands,” taken from an April 1929 issue of the Philippine Journal of Science. It was co-authored by Albert W. Herre and Jose Mendoza, two pioneers in the field. But the bookseller noted that “This copy is unique in that the primary author, Albert W. Herre, has crossed out the name of the second author, Jose Mendoza, on the credit line of the first page, and written alongside it, ‘This name [Jose Mendoza] was added and my paper altered after I had sent it in for publication, all without my knowledge. Herre.’ On the second page, Mr. Herre has crossed out the second paragraph (‘Description of the Bangos’) with a few pen lines (it is still very legible) and written alongside, ‘Added without my knowledge or consent. Herre.’… given that the primary author made the aforementioned annotations, it appears that he donated it to Harvard (and wanted to make sure that Harvard understood that he was the real and only author).” Are we looking at an example of professional jealousy in the sciences?

More on these discoveries next week.

Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel  Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he  would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at  our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer   in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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Penman No. 295: Writers in Wartime

 

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Penman for Monday, March 26, 2018

 

 

I WAS busy a couple of weeks ago going through my library to see which books I could donate to a sale being conducted by our students to benefit worthwhile projects. I happily gave away about a hundred books and will be ready and willing to unload even more next time. But what inevitably happens when you sort out your effects like this is that long-forgotten objects turn up in the pile.

One such item that emerged from this recent overhaul was a thin journal of no more than 70 pages, the December 1943 issue of Philippine Review, published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis, with Angel C. Anden and Jose Luna Castro as associate editors. A little research shows that the Review didn’t last very long—it ran from March 1943 and closed down in December 1944. But during that brief lifetime, it managed to publish such later luminaries as Nick Joaquin, and apparently enjoyed quite a reputation (it was also edited for some time by Francisco “Mang Kiko” Icasiano, whose musings “From My Nipa Hut” graced the prewar Sunday Tribune Magazine).

Indeed, this issue of December 1943 contained not only short stories by Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera, essays by Camilo Osias, Luis Montilla, and Federico Mangahas, and a translation of Mi Ultimo Adios by Juan Collas, but also a short commentary on the language of the Constitution by a 22-year-old Jovito R. Salonga, who had just been released from prison for his work in the underground.

It’s a fascinating window on literature in a time of war, what the politics of the moment can do to writers, and what coping strategies they employ. (My thoughts strayed quickly to a recent discussion online about Filipino writers and politics in these times of tokhang.) The issue opens with paid advertisements—mostly from Japanese companies like the Yokohama Specie Bank’s local branch—hailing “The Second Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Greater East Asia War” while at the same time greeting readers a “Merry Christmas!”

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The Reyes and Alfon stories (“Christmas Visit” and “Jingle Bells”) speak of love and loss, acknowledging the sudden shift in the meaning of Christmas from that December of just two years ago to this one; both stories end with their protagonists weeping uncontrollably. The Reyes story can’t help falling back on old tropes, referring to “Gary Cooper.” So for the fictionists, at least, the transition remains sharp and painful, with metaphors to imply the darkening of the times.

Most of the essayists seem to have no such qualms. In his essay on “A Program of Enlightenment,” Camilo Osias (yes, he of the Philippine Readers series, and future Senate President) argues for a new culture “for all Filipinos under an independent Philippines,” one “characterized by a sound eclecticism in the choice of its elements—by the same careful eclecticism which the Japanese have observed in their cultural borrowings…. The cultural activities to be carried out shall emphasize the precedence of State, national, or social interests over those of the individual.”

For his part, the scholar Luis Montilla writes on the theme of “Rizal as an Orientalist,” and suggests that Rizal would have been sympathetic to Japanese motives had he been alive, even implying that this could be because Rizal was partly Japanese. In his footnotes, he quotes Austin Craig’s statement in 1940 that “I am putting the finishing touches to my Rizal genealogy, now being able to show Japanese blood as well as two Spanish and five Chinese ancestors. I have church or court certificates proving everything.”

Montilla concludes: “Having had his attention directed early to the abuses, calumnies, and indignities heaped unjustly upon his people by the white race, Rizal had to be, and was, the embodiment of a true Oriental…. Now, the duly authorized representatives of the great Japanese Empire have repeatedly assured the Filipinos that Japan has come to these shores not to subjugate the natives of the country, much less to absorb them, but to guide them in their regeneration as true Filipinos, and that when they… shall have been so rejuvenated as to be, as a nation, worthy of membership in the family of Oriental nations, they will regain their long lost independence (and fully realize) the supreme efforts put up by Rizal as an Oriental to help educate and re-Orientalize his people for their preservation and dignification as a race….”

Was I reading a display of what might be called cultural collaboration? Not knowing these writers and the circumstances under which they worked, I have to withhold my judgment, keeping in mind as well that there was good reason for many Filipinos—after centuries of white-man rule—to accept the invading Japanese as liberators. But I felt much educated by these articles, which also reminded me of how our printed words define us, rightly or wrongly, long after we’re gone. They just might turn up in a dusty corner of someone’s bookshelf.

Penman No. 294: From Bach to Baleh

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Penman for Monday, March 19, 2018

 

SOMETIME LAST year, I reported on the opening of the new Museo Kordilyera at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), and predicted that it was going to become one of the new “must-sees” for the culturally savvy Baguio visitor, alongside such landmarks as the Bencab Museum. I was back there last week to help inaugurate a new theater and enjoy a concert—about which you’ll hear more in a bit—but what sealed UPB’s reputation for me as that region’s cultural beacon was its new exhibit titled “Feasts of Merit” which opened last month and which will run all year long.

As UPB Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino explains it, the title refers to the “prestige feasts” sponsored by the well-off families of traditional societies around Asia and in the Philippine north, such as by the Ifugao, Bontok, and Ibaloy. In these feasts—now long gone, for obvious reasons—hundreds of pigs and carabaos would be slaughtered in a show of affluence—indeed, in what could be seen as a deliberate exercise in excess, as Museo director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores acknowledges. But alongside this excess was the idea that wealth was meaningless if it could not be shared with others, so the point of the feast was to have the community partake of it, thereby strengthening the ties between and among the people.

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To liven up the scene, the Museo purchased (with sponsorships), dismantled, transported, and reassembled a complete traditional Ifugao house or baleh which now forms the centerpiece of the exhibit. The 50-year-old house took four days to put back together, says Ikin, employing no nails. Walking around and beneath it gives the visitor an intimate sense of family and village life—as well as of the ingenuity of the native architect, in such touches as the rat guards circling every post, preventing rodents and other pests from clambering up into the house proper.

The baleh may be the most arresting feature of the exhibit, but equally fascinating are the large-scale reproductions of vintage photographs lining the walls, chronicling a lost way of life in the highlands, from Bontok women threshing rice together to other women wearing golden mouth guards to display their wealth (or, as one of those women said, “to shut us up” because the men wore no such flashy encumbrances).

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An especially fascinating corner of the museum houses its impressive collection of heirloom textiles, many sporting designs unseen and unwoven for many decades. As two of her assistants carefully folded and scanned some specimens to create digital files of their designs, Ikin unrolled a large swath of an indigo-dyed textile from the 1920s—still looking new and sharp—that she had found in Chicago, being sold by a Filipino, whom she had managed to persuade to sell the precious artifact.

Foreign sponsors and benefactors such as the Newberry Library in Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia helped make the exhibit possible; local supporters like the National Artist Bencab have also generously lent or donated items from their extensive collections. Dr. Amores says the Museo would be very happy to receive more donations of choice items from private collections, and I can’t think of a more fitting recipient myself of such pieces than the Museo Kordilyera and its state-of-the-art facilities and curatorial services.

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The Museo and its exhibits are part of a broader UPB program to revitalize its campus as a regional center for cultural awareness and research under Chancellor Ray Rovillos, who also happens to be a historian. With just a six-hectare footprint and a steeply sloping landscape to work with, Dr. Rovillos and his architect, the brilliantly adaptive Aris Go, have given UPB a smart new environment that goes beyond looks to include catchments for rainwater, among other innovations.

Thanks to the support of the cultural maven Sen. Loren Legarda, UPB also now has an impressive new theater, the Teatro Amianan, which was inaugurated last week with a concert, and the adjoining Darnay Demetillo Art Space.

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The concert opened with some popular numbers by UPB’s homegrown Tinig Amianan, after which the audience was treated to a stellar performance by soprano Stephanie Quintin, a Baguio girl and UP graduate who has trained in Germany and Hong Kong. Stephanie presented a selection of vocal classics from Bach to Lizst and Gounod before wowing the crowd with Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” and a rousing rendition of Jose Estella’s “Ang Maya.” She was very capably accompanied by the young pianist Gabriel Paguirigan, who’s still in school at the UP College of Music after graduating from the Philippine High School for the Arts, but who has already won a slew of awards.

It may be quite a stretch from Bach to the baleh, but it’s precisely the kind of imaginative leap from the tribal to the global that Baguio has always been known for, and as a UP official myself, I felt immensely proud to see UPB on top of the effort. Bravo!

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Penman No. 291: A Big Boost for Translation

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Penman for Monday, February 19, 2018

 

 

THIS YEAR marks the 40thanniversary of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing, which was established by the UP Board of Regents in 1978 as the Creative Writing Center. I had just returned to UP as an English major after dropping out for ten years when I was taken in by the CWC in the early 1980s as its fellow for drama (I was better known then as a playwright and screenwriter in Filipino than as a fictionist in English).

For a young writer on the verge of his first book, there was nothing more exhilarating than sitting at the feet of the masters—Franz Arcellana, Alex Hufana, and Amel Bonifacio, among many others; Nick Joaquin and Ben Santos came by now and then for the writers’ workshops, and I grabbed the opportunity to have my books signed and to pick their brains, or merely to breathe the same air, thinking that I could imbibe a whiff of their magic.

Since then, the ICW (as it was renamed in 2002) has been at the forefront of developing Philippine literary culture. Its fellows, associates, and advisers number among the most well-regarded writers in the country, including four National Artists for Literature—Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez, Virgilio Almario, and Bienvenido Lumbera. Most of the best writers from all over the country today—be it in Filipino, English, and the regional languages—have at one time or another passed through the doors of the ICW, through the UP National Writers Workshop that UP has held every summer since 1965, even before the CWC/ICW was born. I daresay that there’s no other program that UP has run for as long, without fail, for over half of its nearly 110 years of existence, and that has been as influential in the shaping of the Filipino creative mind.

I was privileged to lead the ICW as its director for three terms, and building on the work of my predecessors (who included, aside from the aforementioned stalwarts, Jimmy Abad, Roger Sikat, Virgilio Almario, Jing Hidalgo, and Vim Nadera, and after me Roland Tolentino), the UPICW expanded its reach over that period. We upgraded the writers’ workshop to cater to mid-career writers, opened a portal to Philippine literature at panitikan.com.ph, published the country’s premier literary journal Likhaan, gave out the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, conducted the Panayam lecture series, and chronicled the lives and thoughts of our best writers under the Akdang Buhay series. We celebrate the literary year every December with a big program at Writers’ Night.

That’s more than any university in the Philippines—indeed in Asia—has done for creative writing, establishing the UPICW as the regional leader in its field. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve undertaken even more new projects these past two years, supported by UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research (EIDR) program.

For example, we’ve conducted Interdisciplinary Book Forums devoted to topics as diverse as tattooing, speculative fiction, and colonial medicine. We’ve also expanded our outreach beyond the mid-career workshop to include the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Workshop for beginning writers, the Bienvenido Lumbera Translators’ Seminar, and the Gemino Abad Teaching Seminar. These last two seminars are aimed at teachers of literature and creative writing, meant to equip them with better skills and insights in handling their courses.

Last February 8-10, we held the first Saling-Panitik: Palihang Bienvenido Lumbera at the UP Hotel under the directorship of ICW Fellow Joey Baquiran. Fifty participants from Bicol, Pangasinan, the Ilocos region, and Metro Manila listened to lectures by respected translation practitioners Bienvenido Lumbera, Marne Kilates, and Mike Coroza.

In their addresses, Bien Lumbera emphasized that literature and its translation in several Philippine languages is at the heart of creating the nation; Marne Kilates extolled St. Jerome as the patron saint of translation; and Mike Coroza argued that a foreign text is dead until its translation comes along for a new audience.

The participants appreciated the hands-on approach of the seminar—facilitated by Pangasinense scholar Marot Flores, Bicol writer Niles Jordan Breis, Iloco expert Junley Lazaga, and Filipino dramaturg Vlad Gonzales—whereby they were assigned texts in their respective languages, English, and Filipino, which they then translated into several versions. For example, the Ilocano group rendered Edith Tiempo’s much-loved poem “Bonsai” into Iloco. The exercises aimed to improve the participants’ translation skills which they can employ in the K-12 literature subjects which they teach in senior high school.

We’re still a long way from developing the corps of literary translators that we’re going to need if we want Philippine literature (other than English) to break into the global stage. But seminars like this are a big step forward, at least in terms of drawing attention to the importance of translation not just in literature but in society and nation-building itself.

And we have the UPICW to thank for it, as well as everyone who’s contributed to keeping it up and running for 40 years.

Penman No. 288: From Quiapo to Norwich

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Penman for Monday, January 29, 2018

 

IT’S A strange title, I know, but it’s all I could come up with to highlight the two topics I’m taking up this week. They’re not actually connected—at least not yet—but they were much on my mind as I dusted off my texts for a new semester of teaching at UP (all for naught, as it turned out, as my graduate writing class was dissolved for lack of students—to my secret relief).

“Quiapo” is at the core of Quiapography, a digital-humanities project designed and led last semester by Dr. Patricia May Jurilla. Normally our resident expert on the history of books and publishing—one of those rare nerds who shares my strange attraction to Gothic blackletter and to the aroma of centuries-old paper—May branched out not only into a new subject but also a new approach to teaching and learning under the rubric of “digital humanities.”

Or maybe not that new. I asked Dr. Jurilla to explain the concept to me, and I was told that “Digital humanities has been in practice for over twenty years now. It’s emerged as a discipline itself with its own league of practitioners, dedicated book series and journals, circuit of conferences and events, degree programs, and new job opportunities in the tight academic market.”

Better than any explanation is the product itself of her PhD students’ semester, during which May directed them in a digital exploration and presentation of that most quintessentially Pinoy of urban spaces, Quiapo. That can be seen on the Quiapographywebsite at https://updigitalhumanities.wixsite.com/quiapography, “a virtual museum designed to document and map the culture of Quiapo in order to celebrate, re-view, and rediscover its heritage and its importance in Philippine history and society.”

Aside from the familiar photographs of and stories about Quiapo Church, amulet vendors, and the Black Nazarene, the site contains useful resources such as a list of literary works about Quiapo, pieces on the district’s fortune tellers, camera shops, and historical heritage, and photo galleries of just about everything.

Myself, I wish that I’d known about the project earlier, as I would’ve had my own Quiapo stories to contribute, as central as the place was to my young life—from my memories of descending for the first time into its brand-new underpass (something straight out of a sci-fi fantasy to a ten-year-old) to marching at Plaza Miranda with fist raised as a teenage Maoist and buying Christmas ham on Echague as a family man.

For those who’ve never strayed into this crucible of Filipino-ness (and sadly, in today’s mall-oriented culture, that would be millions of Pinoy millennials), Quiapographyshould provide a perfect introduction.

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And now a quick cut to Norwich, some 10,600 kilometers away from Quiapo in southeastern England. For nine months between 1999 and 2000, this city became home for me and Beng when I took up residency there as the David T. K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia. It was a restful but also fruitful stay that led to what became my second novel, Soledad’s Sister.

To put it simply, UEA is the most vibrant center of creative writing in the UK. Its community of writers was founded by Sir Angus Wilson and Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970, and its graduates have included the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Rose Tremain. (Among the privileges of being there was having books signed by future Nobel prizewinners J. M. Coetzee and Ishiguro.)

Every year, UEA invites a writer to stay and write there—no teaching, no research, no lectures, just writing and relaxation—at its expense, or rather that of a sponsor named David T. K. Wong. A former journalist, civil servant, and businessman from Hong Kong who also writes fiction, Mr. Wong did well enough in life to endow the generous fellowship, an award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about Asia.

I was the second Wong Fellow, and over the 20 years since the fellowship’s inception in 1998, two other Filipinos have followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy in 2003, and the current fellow, the Davao-born but US-based Nathan Go.

This brings me to my pitch: if you think you have a great novel or collection of stories welling in you—and you’d like to finish it in England, looking out on a lagoon full of graceful swans—please apply for the next Wong Fellowship, like I dared to do two decades ago. All you basically need, aside from the forms and the £10 application fee, is a 2,500-word excerpt from your proposed fiction project. The deadline for applications is February 28. For forms and more information, go here:https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship. Good luck!

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 286: Bringing Science to the People

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Penman for Monday, January 15, 2018

 

JUST BEFORE the Christmas break, I had a chance to speak to three different groups—the local media in Iloilo, the Philippine Genome Center in UP, and the Philippine Information Agency—about popularizing technical information, of the kind produced by academic and government institutions, especially in their research.

This has been one of my lifelong advocacies, being a frustrated scientist who, as a PSHS graduate, traded Industrial Engineering for English at UP. I figured that the next best thing I could do for science was to help scientists let people know about their work, given that, as I often point out, we lack a scientific culture—a rationalist mindset—in this country.

I told them that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Bringing science into the national discourse becomes even more important when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

That’s why we have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also enabling destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation. In other words, it’s a guide to making choices.

A few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Baños tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from the scientific community, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now?

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in this country. Some may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the activists, the bankers, and the generals, or should we rely on science to establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

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(Photos from http://www.up.edu.ph)

Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

Penman No. 282: Never Enough Patriots

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Penman for Monday, December 18, 2017

 

(THIS IS the last of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

Leonard Casper and Joseph Galdon aver that Manuel Arguilla’s best stories are those in the pastoral tradition, and I would agree that “Midsummer” is in a class all its own, but who knows what else he would have written, given ten or twenty more years? Stories like “Elias” convey less surface beauty than his pastorals, but in some ways are more resonant; his last story, “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” is something of a psychological thriller.

This brings to me my main point, which is to propose that to celebrate Arguilla is to recognize and embrace his complexity and even his seeming contradictions. In a sense, he prefigured the situation of many Filipino writers today who find themselves caught between burning local issues and the seductions of the global. The Third World is the new Nagrebcan, and what lies beyond it the new metropolis.

One thing we have to note of Arguilla’s work is that he wrote in English—indeed, a very refined and educated English—which tells us that while he wrote tirelessly and affectionately about the farmers of Nagrebcan, he wasn’t writing to be read by them. That’s not an accusation—only an observation of the fact that Arguilla was very much a member of his literary milieu, a milieu inflamed by proletarian ideals but one that still conducted its passionate debates in English.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Milwaukee, I found a copy in an old bookshop of the March 1936 issue of Story Magazine, America’s pre-eminent fiction publication then, featuring Sinai Hamada’s classic love story, “Tanabata’s Wife.” (I later gave that copy to the Hamadas in Baguio.) The author’s notes mentioned that Hamada had been preceded just the month before by another Filipino writer named Manuel Arguilla and a story titled “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.” Since then I tried to locate that issue, and more than 25 years later, I received it, as a gift from a friend who knew I had been looking for it. The note on the author doesn’t say much, only that “His biography has yet to reach us.” I also just recently acquired, on eBay, a copy of The Prairie Schooner from the Fall of 1935, where can be found a story titled “Midsummer” by Manuel Arguilla. This same journal would also later publish his story “Heat.”

All of these stories—including that of Hamada, who was younger than Arguilla by a year—had already been published in the Philippines. But they still sent them for publication in the US, because it was apparently important for them to do so in their time, just like we seek to be internationally published today not just to find more readers, but to be validated in the global society of letters.

They were young men in their early 20s, brimming with talent and ambition. All they wanted was to write, to be published, and to be read, just like all of you here today. And like many of you, they were outspoken about their beliefs, eccentric and maybe even offensive in certain ways, but totally dedicated to their craft. We lionize them today for good reason, but in truth, as persons and as writers, they were far from perfect, which also means that we can be like them.

Even after his martyr’s death, critical views of Arguilla’s work and legacy have varied widely. Indeed, among his peers, there seems to be a qualified dissatisfaction with his fiction that some of us today would find strange, if not unkind.

As I was preparing for this talk, I was elated to find, in my stash of old literary journals, a copy of the 1952 Literary Apprentice, where five writers—Lyd Arguilla, Ligaya Victorio Fruto, Francisco Arcellana, Edilberto Tiempo, and Alejandrino Hufana—shared their reminiscences of Manuel Arguilla in short personal essays. Lyd sweetly remembers the man and the husband—his bellowing laughter, his flair for fashion, his love of swimming, dancing, jazz, and poker (at least we share something), of Shakespeare, and above all of writing. Ligaya savors the “champaca-laden atmosphere” of the porch at the Arguillas’ house on M.H. del Pilar and the carefree banter of Manila’s prewar literary set, the names and initials of the notables—AEL, AVH, Estrella, Daisy and Bert, SP and Mary, and someone simply referred to by his surname Villa—dropping like cookies along some magical pathway. It all vanishes, of course, in the devastating war that sweeps in from just around the corner—the house, the company, the laughter, the floral fragrance.

Five years Manuel’s junior, Franz recalls Arguilla writing him a letter, urging him to “be true to your real self,” and gifting him with a book with that now famous inscription, “To Francisco Arcellana, May he put more life into his art and less art into his life.” Remarkably, Franz’s memoir ends with a candid admission that “the only thing that pleased me about him was his writing—when he wrote short stories. I didn’t like being lectured to, not even by him…. I shall never be able to forgive him his patriotism. He was no patriot…. He was a writer of short stories. He should have left patriotism alone…. We have many patriots. We don’t have too many writers.”

Ed Tiempo recognizes that “the outstanding gift of Arguilla is his sense of people, his characters,” but adds quickly that “people alone do not make successful fiction.” Ever the traditionalist, Tiempo looks for clearer meaning and coherence in Arguilla’s fiction, but grants that “because we accept the authenticity of the small details, there is something coercive even in (his) unconvincing characters.” Alex Hufana, another son of La Union, does a close reading of “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” and pronounces it authentic, praising the author for keeping “his hand cool even as they hold hot soil—decorum required of him as an artist.”

Whatever your own estimation of Arguilla may be, you will probably agree with me that at his best, he delivered what I tell my students should be the hallmark of a great story: it should not only be well written, but it should be moving, and it should be memorable.

What Arguilla teaches the young writer is that technical excellence alone is not enough. Too many writers exhibit little more than cleverness and linguistic virtuosity, with hardly any emotional impact or lasting effect. He also reminds us what a vast country we have, much larger, richer, and more complex than Starbucks, Facebook, and the Marvel and DC universe, and that a “real” writer, to use one of his favorite words, is one immersed enough in his or her society to recognize both beauty and brutality in the same place.

Franz Arcellana bemoans Arguilla’s loss to patriotism, but that too tells us something we often forget: that there are things more important than writing or literature, and country is one of them. In a war that tore through and across classes and across beliefs, Arguilla died for his country—not for literature, not for socialism, not for his class; well, maybe for Lydia, which makes him even more of a hero to me. With all due respect to my old teacher Franz, we have writers aplenty; of patriots, especially these days, we can never have enough.

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(Photo of Manuel Arguilla’s ancestral home along the National Highway in Bauang, La Union.)