Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 274: Acronyms for Authors

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Penman for Monday, October 23, 2017

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be in Bali, Indonesia, attending this year’s Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, about which you’ll hear more next week. But today I’m going to throw in a few more terms aside from APWT into our literary alphabet soup, so you’ll know a bit more about what our writers are doing.

APWT, of course, is the region’s primary and most active network of writers and translators. While many of its members are also teachers, APWT is refreshingly non-academic, meaning you can actually understand what people are saying at its conferences, which are devoted to practical issues and questions of craft. You can find out more about the organization here (apwt.org) and maybe even think of signing up so you can attend next year’s meeting in Brisbane.

If you’re just starting out as a writer and feel like you’re still a long way away from APWT, perhaps you should try out for the next ALBWW, which is the Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop. Now on its second year, the ALBWW was initiated by the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) to help and encourage young, beginning writers.

UP, of course, had been supporting novices since the workshop itself began in 1965, but since its main summer workshop shifted toward mid-career writers in the 2000s, beginners have had to choose from a roster of workshops offered by other schools. The ALBBWW—named after the country’s foremost exponent of children’s theater—is UP’s way of saying “We haven’t forgotten you.”

Devoted to young adult writing, this year’s ALBWW was held from October 6 to 9 at the Oracle Hotel on Katipunan Avenue, and brought in 12 of the country’s youngest and brightest writers. They included Ivan Khenard Acero, Angeliza T. Arceño, Gabriel Carlos T. Cribe, Sigrid Gayangos, Ivan Emil Labayne, Kid Orit, Steno Padilla, Rayjinar Salcedo, Rai Aldrin B. Salvador, Krizelle R. Talladen, Carlos Valdes, and Sofia Zemana. They came from as far north as Isabela and Baguio to as far south as Butuan and Zamboanga, with backgrounds as diverse as Math, public relations, illustration, and book design, aside of course from literature and creative writing. Veteran writers Dean Alfar, Eugene Evasco, Mina Esguerra, Vim Nadera, and Christine Bellen walked the fellows through discussions of their works and of aspects of the craft.

A highlight of the ALBWW was a group visit with Ma’am Amel at her home, which also happens to be the headquarters of Teatrong Mulat, her pioneering children’s theater group which performed excerpts of their puppet plays for the visitors. The fellows were also treated to a tour of the Ateneo campus and the Rizal Library.

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Another important ICW event last month was the third iteration of the IBF or Interdisciplinary Book Forum, an activity co-sponsored by the UCW and the UP Press. I conceived of the IBF a couple of years ago when I was still ICW Director, thinking how interesting it would be if a new book—in any field, not just literature—were to be read and discussed by a panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines. How would a book on colonial architecture be read by, say, a sociologist, a historian, and a civil engineer? How would a novel on OFWs be received by a labor economist, a diplomat, and a psychologist?

We began this new IBF series last year with discussions around books on tattooing in the northern highlands on new speculative fiction written by Filipinos. For our third book, we chose Dr. Ma. Mercedes Planta’s Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines: 16th to the 19th Century—a book recommended by UP Press Director Neil Garcia not because it was intrinsically interesting but because it also connected us to what its author, a historian, calls “our usable past.” Valuable insights into that past and our appreciation of it were contributed by the archeologist Dr. Victor Paz, the historian Dr. Ma. Luisa Camagay, and the physician Dr. Salvador Caoili. You can find the videos of this and other ICW events at http://panitikan.com.ph/media/.

Last, there’s KSA—Kutura, Sining, Atbp.—a cultural talk show that I host on TVUP along with Drs. Neil Garcia and Cecilia de la Paz. TVUP (tvup.ph) was started last year as UP’s Internet TV station, creating and broadcasting new programs—on significant and important topics, but presented in a popular and accessible manner (one of my favorites titles is “Hairy Balls and Donuts: The Fascinating World of Geometry” by Dr. Joey Balmaceda, a mathematician). On our show—which is bilingual, by the way—we’ve done episodes on film, theater, creative writing, and visual arts, among others, and are looking forward to taping further episodes on architecture, music, and dance, once we get the right mix of guests together.

There’s a few more acronyms for authors I can think of—we’ll soon be looking for our next NSWW fellows (that’s the National Summer Writers Workshop), the big mid-career gig that we’re hoping to be able to move to other UP campuses around the country, possibly in the Visayas next after two years in Los Baños—but you get the idea. In this life of letters, we try to make every word count.

Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 272: A Poet of Nature

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Penman for Monday, October 9, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 271: From Balagtas to Gloc-9

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Penman for Monday, October 2, 2017

 

It would be easy and comforting to praise director Treb Monteras’ Respeto as a testament to the redemptive power of poetry, to art as a transcendent force in the universe—but it’s not that simple.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of that, and happily so for occasional poets like this viewer. We want to believe, in our heart of hearts, that poetry will save us, will elevate us from the sordidness of our surroundings and from our own sad and sorry failings. Two of my favorite quotations about poetry which I often bring up in class address that notion.

The first comes from that quintessential poet of the city, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire: “When (like a poet) / the Sun descends into the city / It ennobles even / the vilest of its creatures.” So, poetry ennobles, raises up the poet from his or her pedestrian reality, no matter how vile that reality may be.

The second comes from Anne Sexton, who took her own life at age 45 after a long bout with depression, but who could still understand that “Suicide, after all, is the opposite of poetry.” Poetry was the life-force, the contributor to the poet’s heightened state of being, as Sexton would advert to in another line: “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”

These ideas were swilling in my head hours after my wife Beng and I stepped out of the cinema, still trying to figure out what I was supposed to think. We had missed Respeto during its Cinemalaya screening—they ran out of seats for us at its last showing—but had heard great things about it and weren’t about to miss it again during its regular run.

The movie itself isn’t hard to follow, even for a pair of senior citizens whose virgin ears opened up to Pinoy battle rap (always good to learn something new) for the first time. The Brockaesque descent into the urban jungle is such a familiar move for Filipino filmmakers (Hamog and Pauwi Na most recently come to mind) that it’s practically a given, but Respeto deepens the milieu by opening a door to the hip-hop subculture that many middle-class and middle-aged moviegoers have no inkling about whatsoever.

The fast and furious exchange of expletives aside, you could take Respeto as an Araby-type coming-of-age story where a young man falls for a woman, tries to gift her with something marvelous, and fails in the effort but learns something about himself in the process. Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because many other dualities and intersections abound in the story beyond just man and woman: that between youth and age (Hendrix, played by the ace rapper Abra, and Doc, played by Dido de la Paz), between apartment and slum, between bookshop and bar, between wisdom and wit, between Balagtas and Gloc-9, between Marcos and Duterte, and even between people who suffer and die for their beliefs and those who simply die out of poverty and crime. And perhaps, in the end, the movie asks, are they really so different? Is there some overarching reality that yokes them all together?

That reality seems to be that they’re all Filipinos living in the time of tokhang, a reality that pointedly intrudes into the narrative at key points and provides the inevitable climax. The environment seethes with menace and aggression—from the verbal violence (and blatant machismo) of the rap battles to the chilling corruption of the rogue cop Fuentes (played with understated competence by Nor Domingo). Without providing too much of a spoiler, I’ll just say that there’s no happy ending here, no triumphant reversals of fortune where the good guy bucks the odds, wins the prize, and gets the girl.

A perceptive review online by Tristan Zinampan puts it this way: “Respeto tells us that—given the cyclical oppression of Philippine society—going your own way, resignation, and apathy are not enough a vehicle to escape. Injustice is widespread; there’s simply no room to hide in this little archipelago. Just because you’re looking up, it doesn’t mean the chains on your feet aren’t there.”

Respeto’s Pinoy ‘hood is fertile ground for confrontation between good and evil in all their forms, with life and art insistently if desperately seeking to survive in the most hostile environments, even within the rap arena itself, where originality seems to be at a premium. The movie’s consistent use of a cemetery as a place for the creation of new art in words and images highlights this struggle.

Ultimately, however, at least for this viewer, Respeto affirms the inescapability of politics—especially the politics that kills—in our society, and its intrusion into our most private spaces, our most fervent dreams. There’s no doubt that the film draws much of its appeal from its running political commentary, but it’s less the topical references that create Respeto’s critical value for me than the power games that define it, some larger than others.

My takeaway isn’t a soothing one: poetry won’t save us, but guns—maybe even a rock—could, if that’s what it takes to overcome evil. And then again, the poetry—the truly great poetry, like all great art—will survive all of us: killers, victims, and bystanders alike. Catch Respeto the next chance you get, maybe on the campus film circuit, and tell me what you think.

 

Penman No. 270: Precedents for Presidents

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Penman for Monday, September 25, 2017

 

It’ll only be around for a few days more, but painter Rock Drilon’s latest exhibit at Galleria Duemila on Loring Street in Pasay City is worth looking into, if only to see how a master abstractionist is inspired by the idea and the experience of home. Titled “Homecoming: Works from Dumangas,” the show is the culmination of the past five years that he’s been staying at the Drilons’ ancestral home in Dumangas, Iloilo, after decades of living and working in the big city up north. He’d originally returned to his roots just to help out his aging mother, but the pull of the province proved too strong, and Rock found himself staying on for good.

This is the 61-year-old’s 50th-plus show, and if you’ve followed his career you’ll see familiar figures in his latest work—the loopy lines and amoeba-like shapes—suffused with color, predominantly pastel but pockmarked with black, like life itself. Of course, the wonder of—and, for many, the problem with—abstract expressionism is that a work can seem to mean anything and everything that the viewer brings to the picture.

Drilon cites Chabet, Dubuffet, and Basquiat among his major influences, aside from his mentor Joya, and it helps to appreciate their art as a whole to see a pattern among the patterns. One manifesto seeking to explain the school famously defined it as “violently opposed to common sense,” and you can see that in Drilon’s creations, whose subjects defy categorization but provoke intense examination. No soul-comforting churches, no sunsets, no ricefields here, only squiggles that could be both microbes and galaxies, as minute or as massive as our imaginations will make them. “Homecoming” is on until September 30.

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AN INVESTITURE, we’re told, is a “formal ceremony conferring the authority and symbols of high office, held during the new president’s first year in office,” and is a high point in the life of every university. Aside from the annual graduation, few opportunities exist for shows of pomp and circumstance—where the professors and administrators parade in full academic regalia—in universities like UP where egalitarianism is religion and simplicity of dress and manner are seen to complement sharpness of mind.

We had one at the University of the Philippines last Wednesday, in honor of our new president Atty. Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion, UP’s 21st, and it occurred to me that in all my 33 years in UP, I had somehow never been to one, although it’s taken place every six years in UP’s modern history. As one of his VPs, I had the honor of marching onstage, and so had a very special view of things.

The experience led me to dig into UP’s history of investitures, where I discovered more than few interesting factoids.

Our very first president, for example, wasn’t only a foreigner—an American—but also a clergyman, an Episcopalian pastor. His name was Dr. Murray Bartlett, and his investiture was held on December 20, 1911—three years after UP opened. About 2,000 students, teachers, and guests trooped to Padre Faura for the afternoon ceremony where—against the expectations of many—Bartlett argued in his speech for a “University for Filipinos” that would not merely copy US universities.

UP’s third president (after the Filipino jurist Ignacio Villamor) was again an American, and a Methodist minister—Guy Potter Benton—and his investiture in December 1921 was memorable not only for its lavish budget of P10,000 and a star-studded guest list that included Governor General Leonard Wood, Senate President Manuel Quezon, and Speaker Sergio Osmeña, but because of a feature that would never be seen again: the UP faculty wore all-white togas, which someone had thought more appropriate for the tropics. (It would be voted out the next year.)

Benton’s illustrious successor, Rafael Palma, had an investiture described as “austere,” but the word clearly did not apply to Don Rafael’s prolific pen, whose 8,000-word speech I clocked at about an hour and a half.

Flashing forward, Onofre D. Corpuz seemed to have spoken in the spirit of martial law when, in 1975, he scorned the notion of the university as a “battleground of ideas,” calling it “a romantic stereotype” which the people could ill afford to support with their taxes.

Edgardo J. Angara’s investiture in 1982 was besieged by a hostile crowd declaiming a litany of complaints—he had dared to start reforming UP’s ancient academic programs, and he would later reconfigure UP into constituent universities—but if anything, his raucous investiture would prove that you can get someone dead wrong, because Angara would go on to become one of UP’s best chief executives.

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These precedents were on my mind last week as I sat in my chair behind our new president, who made an impassioned appeal for the university’s constituents to find common ground, favoring “consensus over conflict, civility over calumny, and collaboration over confrontation.” UP, he said, should be “a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space” within which its people could undertake “cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature.” (You can find the full text of his speech on www.up.edu.ph.)

We all cheered him on and wished him well—governing UP can sometimes be as difficult as governing the archipelago—and as we marched down the stage I felt more than a witness to history unfolding.

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Penman No. 268: What This Prize Should Mean to You (2)

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Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

ONE OF the strangest moments of my life happened in 1993, when my first novel, “Killing Time in a Warm Place,” shared the grand prize with the late, great Tony Enriquez’s “Subanons.” The guest of honor then was none other than President Fidel V. Ramos, among whose speechwriters was none other than me.

There were four or five of us doing his speeches then, and the assignments were farmed out at random, and I can’t remember now if I accepted that Palanca Awards night job with delight or dismay. I suppose I could have swapped assignments with somebody else, but I had to think deeply about the situation. I was one of the awardees, so the young novelist in me wanted to sit back and hear my President’s sincerest thoughts about literature.

But the speechwriter in me also knew that those sincerest thoughts were just going to be written by somebody else in the room, so I figured, it might as well be me, to make sure that he would say nothing terribly wrong, and that he would say something very nice. And of course he did.

Incredibly enough, the same situation happened a year later, when I received a TOYM Award for Literature at Malacañang Palace, again from FVR. In both instances—because we ghostwriters preferred to remain spectral and worked far out of his sight—he had no idea that the hand he was shaking had also crafted his speech. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I interviewed him for another book, that I finally introduced myself as the writer of 500 of his speeches, which remain on my hard drive. We had a good laugh.

I’ve written speeches for five Presidents and innumerable senators and CEOs, as well as the biographies of such diverse figures as Communist guerrillas, capitalist icons, and Marcos cronies. At any given time, I’m working on three or four book projects. I teach, write a weekly column, and peck away at stories, essays, poems, my third novel, and my unfinished oral history of the First Quarter Storm. And, oh, I also get to dress up and play the part of an academic bureaucrat.

I say this neither as a boast nor a lament, but simply to show that it’s all in a writing life. I’m happy and fortunate to have all of these writing jobs—although I must confess to being happier with some than others—because, despite all the challenges and compromises I have to face, this was what I signed up for.

Many other writers in this room have done the same thing, in varying degrees, both out of necessity and desire. Quite a few have approached me and said, “I want to do what you do,” but I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. I remember, early on, typing away at a commercial film script I had to complete, with tears streaming down my face, because what I really wanted to do was to join the Palancas, and I was out of time. That’s my greatest anxiety—to run out of time.

There will always be those who will scoff at what I do and who will insist that every word you write should be God’s own truth, as if that were humanly possible. God might as well smite all lawyers, copywriters, and PR professionals—and let’s throw in all politicians—with his righteous hand.

In a course I designed called Professional Writing, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years in UP, I begin every semester with this admonition: “There’s writing that you do for yourself, and writing that you do for others. And don’t ever get those two mixed up, or you’ll come to grief.” I also remind them that they can always say no, as I’ve done many times without regret.

If you embrace writing as a lifelong and life-sustaining profession rather than a weekend hobby, then you will not be writing every piece as if it were destined for the Palancas, although, as a professional, I do every job I accept as if it were my first, last, and only job, no matter how big or small.

But that again is exactly why we should value the Palancas. Too often, we lend our words to others. With these prizewinning pieces, we reclaim our words to ourselves, for ourselves, for whatever it was that first impelled us to write.

You remind me of that 21-year-old who, even as he had to write speeches, scripts, and stories for others, burned with the desire to write for himself and for his people at large—as this 63-year-old still does, awaiting blessed retirement 16 months hence so I can write the best of what remains in me to write.

Writing for the truth, writing for honor and glory, writing for the love of language—these are what your being here is all about, what the Palancas have existed for these past 67 years. While the generous cash awards are nothing to sneeze at—as the Foundation’s accountants will certainly attest to—the Palancas have always been about more than money. Your certificate tells you, this is how good you are; you look around you and you realize, that is how much better you can be.

This is our real reward, our hope, and our redemption. Whatever else you may have had to write or had to do, what you submit to these awards is your finest self, your truest words, your ineradicable proof of citizenship in the community of letters.

Let me quote President Ramos—well, in fact, let me quote myself: “It is both literature’s virtue and responsibility to reaffirm our fundamental humanity, and the unity of our interests and aspirations as a people. Every act of writing rehumanizes us, both writer and reader.” This is especially important in these darkening times, when megalomaniacal and murderous despotism threatens societies across the ocean, debases the truth, and cheapens human life. The best antidote to fake news is true fiction.

You and I have much to write about. You will not even need to wait until the next Palanca deadline to do what only you can do, and to say what only you can say. If you write for truth, freedom, and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, you will always be a first-prize winner in my book.

Penman No. 267: What This Prize Should Mean to You (Part 1)

 

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Penman for Monday, September 4, 2017

 

I WAS much honored to be the guest speaker last Friday at the 67th annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, so I’ll share my talk with my Penman readers this week and next:

First of all, I’d like to thank the Palanca Foundation and family for this tremendous honor, which I honestly never expected to receive. For about forty years, I have been watching and listening to many very distinguished people at this podium explicating on literature and society—and you will forgive my bias if I say that the writers were usually more memorable than the politicians—but I never imagined myself to be in their exalted position.

Indeed I have been fortunate enough to join the Palanca Hall of Fame, but I am no literary genius or philosophizer. I have always introduced myself as a Swiss Army Knife of writing, a practitioner and professional who has made a living of his words. I was already working as a newspaper reporter at 18, before I won my first Palanca; I was a journalist beholden to the facts before I was liberated by fiction.

Tonight I will address myself mainly to the first-time winners in this audience, to those who entered the Rigodon Ballroom with an extra spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes, with their parents or partners in tow.

I can tell you now that you will never forget this evening, as I have never forgotten my own introduction to this very special society of peers and comrades. It was on this day in 1975 that I won my first Palanca, a share of second prize for a short story in English. The awarding was held on the top floor of the company building in what used to be Echague—now, of course, Carlos Palanca Street—in Manila.

It was a little less opulent than this ballroom, but to that 21-year-old winning a prize the first time he joined, it might as well have been heaven, nirvana, and Camelot all rolled into one. I knew no one, and no one knew me, and I could only watch from afar as celebrated writers like Krip Yuson—who shared first prize in my category with Leo Deriada—regaled each other, likely with stories of their latest exploits in Ermita.

I still have my certificate from that ceremony: an elaborately hand-lettered work of art larger than a college diploma. Since I had dropped out in my freshman year and was working in a government office under martial law, I treasured that certificate as if it were my diploma, and had it framed. I’m told that the calligrapher who crafted those certificates has passed away, but his strokes remain indelible in my memory.

With my prize money of a couple of thousand pesos, plus some savings, I bought my first car—which tells you what kind of car it was: a canary-yellow 1963 Datsun Bluebird, battered but bright, into rehabilitating which I would throw many more years of good money after bad and not get even one day’s worth of driving, before my mechanic finally ran away with it. Years later I would get a call from the Quezon City police to inform me that they had impounded a yellow Bluebird registered in my name, and I could have it back if I paid the fee. I went over to take a look—the car’s tires were all flat, and it was riddled with bullet holes. I muttered an oath and a prayer and left it there.

So that’s what happened with my first Palanca prize, and one of these days if I turn that into a short story I might get some of my money back. But the most grievous consequence of that first victory was the fact that, for the next four years, I lost. I turned in entry after entry, and kept losing and losing. Considering who was winning—the likes of Gregorio Brillantes and F. Sionil Jose—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I had to fight back the growing fear that my first Palanca was a joke.

In 1980 I won again, and soon hit my stride. It took 20 more years to enter the Hall of Fame, by which time I had published ten books, gone back to college, and begun another career as a teacher. I never joined the Palancas again, except to be an occasional judge, but I have come to these awarding ceremonies as often as I could, eager to witness the annual emergence of new literary talent.

I give you this overview of my long relationship with these awards to bring us to the subject proper of my brief talk this evening, “What This Prize Should Mean to You.” The quick and correct response, of course, is to say that a Palanca award will bring you honor, some fame—certainly bragging rights for your proud mama and papa—and even some money, if not for a car then for a weekend in Boracay or a new phone or laptop to replace the old one.

You will be walking on air for a couple of weeks, until the novelty wears off, the money is spent, and you return to the humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is keeps you and your family alive. You will discover that, to most people, your literary genius makes no difference and no sense. You will begin to wonder, as I did, if it was all a fleeting illusion.

Some of you will fall by the wayside, but most of you will press on, like we did, wanting this Cinderella moment to repeat itself year after year. It will not always happen, and you will learn to take your losses as well as your triumphs—those years I kept joining and losing became my real education—but if you keep at it, you will reach the point when the winning will matter less than the writing. That, I think, will be your greatest victory, the realization that these awards are but an enabler, a handmaiden of books that will be validated no longer by a panel of three judges but by a readership of thousands.

(To be continued)

 

Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.

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These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.

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But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.

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[Photo from philstar.com]