Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

LadyPilots

Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LadyMechs

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

IMG_1175

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.

IMG_1192

IMG_1181

IMG_1187

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?

IMG_1178

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.

IMG_1194

IMG_1220

IMG_1203

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.

IMG_1188

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 242: A Husband’s Purpose

Dog

Penman for Monday, March 13, 2017

 

 

I’M NOT a dog person—next to my wife Beng, my marmalade tomcat Chippy was my best friend for twelve years until he meowed goodbye in 2012—but when I saw the trailer for this new movie A Dog’s Purpose, I just knew that I had to take Beng out to see it.

Beng loves dogs; at any given time, she has six or seven of them running around the yard. Her favorite, Bunso, invariably greets her when we get out of the car with a yelp and raises his paws for a shake and head rub, maybe even a sloppy kiss. I cringe when I see that, especially the part where the pooch’s wet tongue flicks across a cheek I might be visiting myself. For Beng, it’s just one more proof that dogs are more faithful than men, never mind that we don’t have tails to wag to flaunt our extravagant affections.

Of course, Beng knows the names of all her dogs, and who sired whom three generations removed. To me, they’re all noisy little mongrels distinguished by the fact that some are white, some are brown, and some are black. As you can imagine, over the years, we’ve given away scores of puppies to neighbors and relatives who thankfully couldn’t see beyond the cuddly cuteness to where certain recessive genes assert themselves. I become vaguely aware that the litter (and I suspect that’s where the word’s other meaning came from) is gone when a deep and abiding silence descends upon the household, at least until the other dogs demand their share of the food budget.

I’m not sure where my indifference to dogs comes from. Discounting guppies in water bags and terminally ill mayas in bamboo cages, we didn’t have pets as children—my four smaller siblings were a handful enough for my mom—so that’s probably one reason. My one dog memory from childhood involves a barking bitch and her pup whom I met on the street; I was nine years old and summering in my provincial hometown, but even at nine I had begun to read a lot, and one of the things I read was “Barking dogs don’t bite.” Well, this one did, and I grew up to be a skeptic from that point on.

At the same time, and strangely enough, I was a big fan of Lassie, and became something of a pest in the eyes of our TV-owning neighbor, parking myself in front of their TV nearly every afternoon in anticipation of another episode of Lassie chasing down scumbags and finding her way home after straying 200 miles. So I knew dogs were smart, and maybe that’s where the problem was—there could be only one top dog in the house, and as far as I was concerned, that position was already taken.

But back to the movie. Beng and I see a lot of movies, usually after a foot massage and a panciteria dinner. It’s as predictable as Tuesday, but life’s like that when you edge past 60; you don’t want too many surprises messing up your week. At least I don’t; now and then Beng makes mewling sounds about trying out new dishes or even new restaurants, and to be gracious I’ll say, “Okay, since we’ve had the miki bihon in this place half a dozen times now, let’s see what it tastes like across the street!” This is how we’ve survived 43 years together—understanding, compromise, and a little generosity.

The G word was on my mind last week when I suggested that we watch the damned dog movie. Usually we subsist on some iteration of Fast & Furious—that’s how I get my kicks, by watching cars crash into concrete walls and skulls get smashed by sledgehammers (“Isn’t violence relaxing?” I ask Beng over the popcorn). Once in a while, typically when a new iPhone hits the market, I treat Beng to a movie without Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Vin Diesel in it. I scored big with La La Land; you know she had fun when she asks you to look for the soundtrack, which is what the house will sound like for the next week, over the woofs and the whimpers of our canine company.

Beng likes movies like Hidden Figures and Sunday Beauty Queen where strong, smart women are smiling as the closing credits roll, where good people go to heaven, and where frogs turn into princes (she’s still waiting for that to happen). Whether it’s a happy or a sappy ending, she’s likely to cry over something. (She was probably the only person on the planet who wept when the Soviet Soyuz rocket ship docked with the Space Station—“Isn’t world peace wonderful?” I remember her saying.)

So I knew she was going to weep buckets when I took her to the dog movie; for me, watching her watching the movie makes it all worthwhile. Now this is going to be a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that A Dog’s Purpose is all about canine reincarnation, and about finding your way home (which, again, is apparently on every presumptive Lassie’s script).

I lined up for our tickets—we usually get D15 and D16, about midway across the theater—but dozens of families had also come out for the mutt show, and now only V15 and V16 were available, way up in the balcony where all the young couples nested. When I showed Beng the tickets, she giggled and said, “Are we going to neck?” I mumbled some incoherent, noncommittal reply, suddenly feeling very frog-like. She thought it was a funny idea, and threatened to call our daughter Demi in California, to tell her that her parents were going to go necking in the moviehouse.

Thankfully the movie started, and soon enough, as one dog died after the other, Beng was pulling out her tissues and sniffling serially, and I touched her on the cheek to assuage her grief. I could’ve licked her right there, but I could imagine Demi going “Ewwwww!” I left it to Bunso to do the licking later—having, for that day, served my husbandly purpose.

 

Penman No. 239: A Pinoy Pangalay in Hyderabad

hyderabad-literary-festival-venue

Penman for Monday, February 20, 2017

 

 

I’M GOING to turn over most of my column this week to a colleague at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, the playwright and essayist Luna Sicat Cleto, whom I commissioned (badgered is the more appropriate word, since I’m not paying her anything more than my deepest thanks) to do a report on a recent mission that she and a group of Filipino writers undertook in Hyderabad, India.

The original invitation to attend the Hyderabad International Literary Festival and organize a delegation as a “guest nation” had been sent to me, but since I couldn’t work it into my schedule, I asked performance poet and Philippine High School for the Arts director Vim Nadera to put together and lead a troupe of Filipino writers and artists. And what a delegation it turned out to be. With Vim went fellow writers Jun Cruz Reyes, Victor Sugbo, Luna Sicat Cleto, Jeena Rani Marquez, Christine Godinez Ortega, Hope Sabanpan-Yu, and Neila Balgoa. Spoken word poet Kooky Tuason also came along, as did Ifugao poet Dumay Solinggay. Dance and music were represented by Cecilia Artates and Marty Tengco. Let’s hear the rest from Luna:

“According to Dr. T. Vijay Kumar, Professor of English at Osmania University in Hyderabad, the Philippine delegation was the biggest group they had received so far, having hosted five nations since it began in 2010. The other four were Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, and Singapore.

“Dr. Kumar, alongside the novelist Pranesh Prasad, had encouraged the attendance of the Filipino writers. Prasad graced the Iligan workshop in 2013 as guest writer and also attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Manila in 2015.

Since then he has felt a strong affinity with Filipinos. Prasad was happy with the performance of the delegation, saying that ‘I think we achieved our goal of creating awareness about Philippines in India, given the number of newspapers that covered your participation and all the people contact that has resulted. It bodes well for India-Philippines cultural relations.’

“Prasad’s observation was echoed by Jun Cruz Reyes, who felt that it was refreshing to read about the convergence of so many talents and minds in the festival, which was not limited to the literary field alone. Topics as diverse as politics, history, sports, and popular culture were taken up in parallel sessions. While some German industrial designers discussed the sustainable technology of chai shops, a Mumbai-based young entrepreneur talked about Instagram ruminations, while another focused on the Indian graphic novel. There were talks given by poet laureates Ashok Payjevi alongside investigative journalists like Josy Joseph and Harsh Mander, and discussions of translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Tamil stories alongside debates about the effects of the partition and human trafficking. Particiapns got to see martial-arts demonstrations of the shilambam as well as India’s latest art films. The plurality of HILF is based on its inclusive ethos: it is multilingual and multidisciplinary, and the multiple speakers—writers, artists, scholars, filmmakers, journalists, publishers—represent a wide range of creative fields. Hyderabad has been described as a ‘teeming urban masala of color and commerce,’ and indeed the city evokes the ancient prosperity of its Mughal past, alongside its twin reputation as a Silicon Valley of India.”

Luna adds that “Indeed, it is fortuitous that the Philippines was invited now, while both countries are assessing their relative positions in the global literary and cultural scene. It also became a chance to rediscover the bonds between India and the Philippines, evident in the many words from Sanskrit that are in the Filipino’s vocabulary: budhi, guro, and diwata, among others. While India has a strong tradition of writing in English because of the colonial legacy of British education, the Philippines also has a strong contingent of Filipino writers in English. India’s raucous democratic plurality in religion and politics is echoed in the Philippines’ plurality of religion, politics, cultural traditions and languages. The many languages of India are celebrated in the Hyderabad International Literary Festival, and for this year, its focus was on the Tamil language. One artist, the great Indian dancer Leela Samson, who performed in ‘Past Forward,’ said that it is about time that India listened to its many voices, and let the major languages of India be the conduits of thoughts and ideas.

“Samson’s sentiments were echoed in the Philippine delegation’s performance, aptly titled ‘Philippine Pangalay: Karmic Harvest.’ Vim Nadera strutted onstage, dressed in an all-white suit complete with an American flag tie. Channeling Donald Trump and the doomsday rhetoric of born-again speakers, he pronounced that he was dedicating his performance to the memory of National Artist Francisco Arcellana. ‘Close all open things, Lord/Open all closed things,’ Nadera intoned, appropriating Elvis’ crotch choreos with riffs from the musical Hair. The crowd was energized. He then introduced Jeena Marquez, who performed a powerful dramatic monologue based on Rizal’s epilogue in El Filibusterismo, a re-enactment of Maria Clara’s leap to death as witnessed by two civilians. Romancing Venus was the next act, which featured Tuason’s slapshock verbal performance, enhanced by Tengco’s drumming and Artate’s pangalay. But the real star of the delegation was Dumay Solinggay, who channeled the anguish of epic chanters with her poignant chorus of  ‘We must remember, we must remember…’ Solinggay did not only echo the trauma of the postcolonial subject, who may feel trapped in identities and names arbitrarily assigned, in specific situations like the call-center agents or the inevitable loss of memory in the fast pace of urban life. When she danced at the last part of her ensemble, her body resembled the paroxysm of the chanters in a trance.”

What can I say? I wish I’d been there with them in Hyderabad. The name alone sounds like magic, and I’m sure the place and the experience were every bit just that.

philippine-delegation-with-ambassador-daza-from-hope-yu

(Photos by Jeena Marquez and Hope Yu)

Penman No. 235: High Time at the Henry

img_0634

Penman for Monday, January 23, 2017

 

A COUPLE of weekends ago, against all odds, Beng and I celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary and not coincidentally my 63rd birthday. It seemed like an inspired idea at the time to get hitched as I turned 20, but over the years I’ve wondered if I should have given each day its proper due, and doubled my presents that way. But I soon realized that I was never going to get or find a better gift than Beng—patient, forgiving, and gentle Beng—so January 15 has largely been a day for two.

img_0616

Around Christmas I start thinking about how and where best we can spend the day, and this year, with UP having shifted its academic calendar to begin the school term in mid-January, we could have opted, funds permitting, to fly out to some exotic destination like Penang or Pattaya (or, heck, why not Paris?).

Instead, after some Googling, we ended up in the most unlikely of romantic locales—Pasay City, at the Henry Hotel along F.B. Harrison, to be more specific, where the magic begins once the gate opens.

I’d read about the Henry somewhere before and had seen pictures of the place—a visual and sentimental journey back to the 1950s, with its stately main house and sculpted gardens, and I remember being amazed even then by the fact that such a sylvan hideaway could exist in the heart (or less kindly the armpit) of the metropolis. It was high time we checked in for a weekend staycation; the saved airfare alone would answer for the room. And being staunch northerners, we barely knew the southern sector of the city, except for visits to the Cultural Center and the Luneta area. We hadn’t even reconnoitered the cavernous Mall of Asia except again for the briefest sorties.

But again that’s not entirely true, because I had actually grown up in Pasay in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in a house on P. Manahan branching off F.B. Harrison. It was a neighborhood interlaced with catwalks, off one of which I once fell into the fetid water while showing off my brand-new cowboy outfit, which I had probably received for my fifth or sixth birthday.

That bit of unpleasantness aside, I could still remember afternoons swimming in Manila Bay and lounging on the long beach chairs by the sea wall, riding the double-decker Matorco buses up and down what was still Dewey Boulevard, and munching on foot-long hotdogs at the Brown Derby.

So this weekend in Pasay was something of a homecoming for me, even if all the old landmarks were gone. What’s now the Henry was already there when I was humming the Tom Dooley song, but it wasn’t a hotel yet then but a sprawling compound of large squarish but stylish wooden houses flanking a white concrete main house, amid greenery tamed and teased by Ildefonso P. Santos, who would go on to become a National Artist for Architecture.

img_0586

The 32-room Henry was built by its new owners out of that layout, preserving as much of the old while providing such modern amenities as wi-fi and air-conditioning. A long gravel driveway leads to a fountain and a roundabout fronting the main house, past a curtain of angel’s-hair vines; a swimming pool glows opalescent blue amid the verdure; the main house stands proud but welcoming.

I’ll report that we had a most pleasant and restful stay, helped along by an unobtrusively efficient staff. We luxuriated in the fluffy pillows and the hot shower. It was a bonus to discover that the art gallery of an acquaintance, Albert Avellana, occupied one of the houses in the compound.

img_0594

img_0593

But our anniversary weekend wasn’t meant to be spent cooped up in a room, however charming the ambience. We’ve lately been used to taking 5-7 kilometer walks as part of our seniors’ exercise regimen, so we gamely walked for our bangus and salad breakfast to a restaurant near MOA, and walked many kilometers more within the mall itself.

Staying at the chic Henry was in a way the compleat anti-mall experience, but Beng and I have never pretended to be anything but pedestrian, so that for us was the exotic treat. The mall, like all markets, was familiar territory.

We took in a couple of action movies, buying more popcorn than we could ingest, and oohed at all the nice clothes that wouldn’t fit us. When we had lunch of ukoy and suam na halaya at the KKK restaurant, Beng loudly let the manager know that we were celebrating our 43rd, snagging us a free dessert of leche flan. Hankering for a sushi dinner, we misread Chinese for Japanese and stumbled into Masuki, which served huge bowls of my all-time favorite, Ma Mon Luk-style mami.

img_0617

The literal highlight of our weekend had taken place earlier that afternoon. We had asked ourselves, the night before, “What kind of cheap, mindless fun haven’t we tried in a long time?” (Not that, naughty boys and girls.) We paid P150 each the next day for the answer: an eight-minute joyride up and down the MOA Eye, the big white Ferris wheel from whose apex we took selfies before tumbling out of our pod, giggling, to rejoin teeming humanity and the surefooted ordinariness of things.

img_0609

img_0612

Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

im_cover3e

Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

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

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

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

bsp

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

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

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

s-l400

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

s-l400-1

philippines02

Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

Sunday_Beauty_Queen_poster.jpg

Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

AS SOMEONE who wrote about 25 full-length screenplays for various film projects and directors in another life between the late 1970s and early 2000s, I really should be more interested in the remarkable developments that have taken place since in local cinema, especially on the indie scene.

But I have to confess, with some guilt and shame, that I haven’t kept up with what our younger, post-Brocka and post-Bernal directors have produced, except for the occasional viewing of a Brillante Mendoza or a Lav Diaz film, or outstanding documentaries such as last year’s Curiosity, Adventure and Love and An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines. There are some personal reasons for this estrangement (not worth getting into at this time), but I do realize that I’ve missed out on a lot of good material while bingeing unpatriotically on Hollywood and Netflix.

I must say that the Metro Manila Film Festival and its seemingly bottomless decline from its glory days ages ago to the inevitable iteration of Enteng Kabisote contributed to my dismay. This most recent MMFF, however, seemed open to letting a ray of filmic sunshine through, with new criteria and a new selection process that put a premium on quality over commercialism. When I saw the list of the people involved and when I noted that their final selections were fresh titles by new directors, my expectations rose and I told Beng, after Christmas, “Let’s go see a movie!”

We’ve managed to see only two MMFF films as of this writing, but in both instances, our hopes were well rewarded.

Sunday Beauty Queen, which eventually won the Best Picture Award, documents the labors of Hong Kong’s OFW community in putting together a beauty pageant to ease the pangs of loneliness and the drudgery of their work. Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film tracks pageant organizer Leo Selomenio—herself a longtime domestic helper—and the lives and stories of several key participants, all of them hardworking DHs. These girls, clearly, are no Gemma Cruzes or Pia Wurtzbachs, but even those of us who may scoff at the predictable inanities of beauty pageants will appreciate how the idea of “beauty” itself has been turned inward by this film, whose insistent positivity prompted me to tweet, as I stepped out of a cinema, that it was a “beautiful film about truly beautiful people.”

It wasn’t lost on me that I myself had written a novel, Soledad’s Sister, about OFWs, set briefly in Hong Kong, and had more than once observed our compatriots’ festive Sunday gatherings in Statue Square. Novels like mine tend to be morose reflections on human suffering, but there’s nothing like a well-crafted and even-handed documentary to bring out the verve and the tenacity that must accompany and cushion all that sorrow, and Sunday Beauty Queen draws on Pinay resilience in spades. The ultimate crown its subjects wear—and they are all winners—is that of dignity. Bravo, brava!

The other movie we chose to see was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, with the irrepressible and hugely talented Eugene Domingo reprising her title role. We hadn’t seen the original movie from 2011 (and are now sorry we didn’t), but had no trouble wading into the premises of this sequel, which has Eugene playing herself as a comebacking star and tormenting her director (Kean Cipriano) with her “suggestions” for “improving” the script. It’s a riotously satirical project through and through, well-acted by its ensemble and well-scripted by the unfailingly sharp Chris Martinez, intelligent without being pretentious.

I may have chuckled more appreciatively than others in the audience, having gone through many of the absurd situations and propositions Eugene’s character raises in the film with her director-scriptwriter. I know I said at the start of this piece that I didn’t want to talk too much about how and why I got fed up with working in the film industry, but I feel like I should share at least one incident, from around 20 years ago, that’ll help explain why I moved from writing film scripts to writing novels and biographies.

Let’s set our scene in the offices of a big film studio, somewhere in Quezon City. I’ve been called to an urgent meeting by the producer because the movie we’re shooting (yes, we’re actually in the shooting stage) needs a new ending. Why? Because the studio’s Big Boss, who keeps track of the bottom line, doesn’t want our hero to die, like we’d originally planned; dead heroes bomb at the box office. So now we have to figure out a new extro, and the producers’ friends and alalays are all generously available and willing to help us think the ending through.

“So Gabby doesn’t die at sea when his banca is run over by a big ship,” one of them suggests, “but of course Sharon doesn’t know that, and in despair, she accepts Eric’s offer of marriage. But on the way to the wedding, she asks the car to stop by the beach, where she and Gabby used to promenade. She’s in her wedding gown, and she walks on the beach thinking about Gabby, until she reaches the tree they used to stand under. So she does some muni-muni, remembering their happy days….” At this point, another alalay interjects: “Ay, you know what, it will be so kilig if she looks up at the tree, and she’ll see the face of Gabby shimmering on every leaf!” I take a huge gulp of water to drown the welling acid in my gut.

“She makes a speech and tells the absent Gabby how much she truly loves him,” the original contributor ventures breathlessly, “and then she walks away… to her marriage and her life with Eric…. But it doesn’t end there! Because… because when she drives away, we see that there’s movement from behind the tree—it’s Gabby! He’s alive!”

There’s clapping and cheering all around the table, until somebody has the temerity to ask, “But why doesn’t he show himself to her?” It’s a question met with profound disdain. “Because—don’t you see?—Gabby is now in crutches, he lost one of his legs in the boating accident, and he loves Sharon too much to make her share her life with a cripple! So, nobly, he lets her go, as the theme song plays to the closing credits…..”

Appreciative sighs greet the revelation, as some of my water sputters onto the table.

Thankfully my director and I found a way to weasel out of that inspired conclusion, and the movie was shot and finished. I collected my paycheck, and resolved to do my best to write just stories, novels, nonfiction, and columns from that moment on.

Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

william blake illustrations.jpg

Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

UWStout.jpg

“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

chicagostrike.jpg

 

But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

2014-02-12-Fifthgraderreading.jpg

 

Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

Funny-Animal-Love.gif

This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

Books3.png

 

Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

th.jpeg

 

The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

medusa.jpg

At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

Books2.jpg

 

To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

facebook-friends1.jpg

 

and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

Heroes2.jpg

 

Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

Apple_Store_Trolling.jpg

 

And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

Change.png

 

Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

Drugs-killings.jpg

But words can also heal.

Words can save.

i am sorry (6).jpg

 

Words make law.

Words make war.

FM-Declares-Martial-law-596x720.jpg

Words make money.

Trump.png

 

Words make peace.

Words make nations.

constitution1.jpg

 

Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

Picture4.png

Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

Picture5.png

Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

IMG_9859 2.jpeg

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.

IMG_9862.jpeg

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.

IMG_9867.JPG

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).

IMG_9887.jpg

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.”

IMG_9881.JPG

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.