Penman No. 425: Red Light, Green Light

Penman for Monday, October 11, 2021

THOSE OF you who smiled when you read the title know what I’m talking about: none other than Squid Game, which is set to become the most viewed Netflix production of all time.

I’m still groggy from two nights of binge-watching, after making sure that my wife Beng was already asleep. She’s a Korea-novela fan—and I guess you can call me a reluctant convert, having little choice but to follow the travails of star-crossed lovers getting wet in the rain, slurping ramyeon, or running slow-motion into each other’s arms on a beach at sunset. But for some reason, Beng likes romance, not gore, and she steadfastly refused to reciprocate my constancy by watching Squid Game with me. 

She can’t understand it when I explain that violence relaxes me, releases the lion in my pussycat, exhausts my latent desire to pulverize my enemies and split a few skulls, and leaves me refreshed for another day of, well, typing. Beng’s favorite expression—which she uses several times a day, usually when watching the news or some TV drama, or when we’re driving past a mangy dog—is “Kawawa naman!” If she were a street in UP Village, it would be “Mahabagin.” 

That’s why, you see, she couldn’t possibly get through even one episode of Squid Game. The violence hadn’t even begun—Gi-Hun was just getting warmed up as the quintessential loser, trying to play good dad to his 10-year-old daughter—when I heard Beng mutter her first “Kawawa naman!” Rather than subject myself to a night-long litany of laments for pitiful souls, I agreed to switch channels and watch contestants try to outdo each other in applying hideous makeup onto hapless models. Beng couldn’t see me wincing in the dark, my tender aesthetics feeling the vicious assault of mascara wands and lipstick applicators.

But let’s get back to the show. After its release less than a month ago, Squid Game became a global sensation in no time at all, and it’s easy to see why. Even the venerable Washington Post intones that “Squid Game (is) much more than a gory dystopian thriller. It’s a haunting microcosm of real life, unpacking the many implications of inequality, which has in some way drawn each of the players to this battle for their lives.” 

Parents will be horrified to find that their kids can buy Squid Game soldier outfits online, complete with black masks and pink track suits, submachine guns optional. (When I clicked the link, I got a message saying “Sorry! This product is no longer available.” That can mean only one of two things: first, that the seller developed a conscience and pulled the item out, or second, that stocks were sold out—you win a prize of a trip to Busan if you guess the correct answer.)

So let’s get this clear, especially if you’re thinking of gathering the family around the TV for some quality time watching people’s shirts turn a splotchy red: Squid Game isn’t for kids, okay? The whole point of it is that it wants people to think they’ll be playing kids’ games—which is true, except that (this is hardly a spoiler now, after all the publicity), the losers die.

I’m not going to go into the kind of sociological soul-searching that will be the stuff of dissertations over the next five years, with titles like “Competition Theory: Neoliberalism, the State, and Squid Game in the Philippines, 2016-2022.” (If you want an honest-to-goodness, semi-academic chat about the show, the UP Korea Research Center will be hosting an online forum on Squid Game on Friday, October 15, at 3:30 pm.) 

I’m tempted more by the idea of staging our version of the game here, with life’s “winners” instead of losers as players, for a change. The reward will be—let’s see, what might the rich and powerful still want that they don’t already have? More money? Too easy; they have enough stashed away in the British Virgin Islands (legally, mind you—they did nothing wrong) to last three lifetimes. More happiness? Which means what—more likes on Instagram, more cover shots in the glossies, Ivy League placements for the kids, one mistress more, a new Lamborghini Huracan, another Patek Philippe, a new calling card saying “Senator of the Republic,” or something even loftier? Eternal life? Some families already have that—35 years after EDSA, you-know-who are still around.

How about this: the prize will be absolution for one’s sins, which technically will qualify one for entry into heaven, no matter what terrible things one may have done in life—stolen billions, murdered thousands, lied 90 percent of the time, cursed God and half the saints, you supply the rest. 

It could be voluntary, of course, because most of the players we’d like to nominate will never admit to sinning nor to needing forgiveness; they have willfully accepted damnation, and their choice must be respected. But I think it will be more fun if, in the 2022 elections, we took a special poll to vote for 456 politicians, public officials, generals, bigtime drug lords, profiteers, car-loving pharmaceutical executives, troll masters, and other crooks to constitute the players. 

How thrilling it would then be to put on a black mask, look over the track-suited multitude, appreciate the anxiety in their puzzled faces, and announce: “Green light!… Red light!” Boom. Boom. Boom. Sorry, Beng, hindi sila kawawa, and I could watch this all day.

Penman No. 423: From Poetry to Treason

Penman for Monday, September 13, 2021

AS A COLLECTOR of old books and other objects of interest more ancient than me, I sometimes stumble across manuscripts and documents that turn out to be a bit more private than the usual accounts of travels to Sulu or the history of Negros sugar. I’ve found ardent and very carefully composed love letters (apparently never sent), poems to the departed, and receipts for unmentionables. Coming from a past where people wrote with physical ink on physical paper, these inadvertent mementoes of lives lived and loves lost convey emotion and meaning in a way that digital ones and zeroes never will.

Some of these discoveries have been particularly poignant. A few months ago, I wrote about finding a typewritten collection of essays written by Lyd Arguilla in the 1950s, where she stoically recounts her husband Manuel’s execution by the Japanese; tucked into that folder was a love poem she wrote in his memory after the war, in New York.

Last month, a bookseller offered me three items that had to do with one subject, from whose personal library they likely came. One was a scrapbook of sorts by this Filipino author, another a short biography—also typewritten—of the man and samples of his most popular works, and the third a published play written by his illustrious mother. The writer’s name was vaguely familiar to me: Aurelio S. Alvero, otherwise known by the pseudonym he adopted after the war, “Magtanggol Asa” (he himself spelled it “Magtanggul”), a play on his initials and on his ambition to become a lawyer—as well as being, of course, a self-descriptive epithet as the defender of hope. He was born in 1913  in Tondo to illustrious parents—Emilio Alvero, an artist and interior decorator, and Rosa Sevilla, writer, suffragette, and educator who founded the Instituto de Mujeres, a pioneering school for women in the Philippines.

Generations of Filipino schoolchildren have known him for his poem “1896,” written before the war, a favorite piece for choruses, because of its hypnotic rhythm and refrain. It begins:

The cry awoke Balintawak

And the echoes answered back…

“Freedom!”

All the four winds listened long 

To the shrieking of that song…. 

“Freedom!”

Just by this piece, no one can be faulted for thinking of Alvero as a patriotic poet—or in the very least a writer of patriotic poetry, and that he was. Indeed he was lauded by his peers and even later by scholars such as Grant Goodman and Augusto de Viana as a “brilliant” intellectual, one who could write equally well in Tagalog, English, and Spanish. He was a star student at the Ateneo and UST, winning a raft of medals for his scholastic achievements. 

But he was also described as a “complex” artist, a rather evasive and much kinder term for what his harshest critics would call him: a traitor to his people, convicted and imprisoned for wartime collaboration with the Japanese. The charges brought up against him by the postwar court were formidable: up to 22 counts of treason, from his active role in such pro-Japanese organizations as the Kalibapi and Makapili to selling war materiel to the enemy and participating in the destruction of Manila. The most outrageous offenses were damnably detailed: among them, that within one year, his trading firm—capitalized at only P15,000—earned a whopping P2,000,000 from sales to the Japanese (shades of Pharmally!), and that he personally directed the burning of a part of Pasay toward the end of the war. For these, and despite his spirited protestations, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bilibid, cut short by an amnesty granted by President Quirino in 1952. 

How could the same man, so gifted and so promising, turn out so badly? Even before the war, Alvero had railed against American imperialism, and—like Gen. Artemio Ricarte, among others—saw Japan as a friend and liberator. But unlike more rabid pro-Japanese Filipinos like Benigno Ramos, he opposed the atrocities of the Makapili, although he urged his countrymen to resist the Americans to the end. Complex indeed. Arguing that neither “patriot” nor “traitor” could fairly describe him, Dr. Goodman calls him “a romantic opportunist” who thought he could achieve his ideals by casting his lot with the devil.

Despite his early release from prison, the ordeal took its toll. While other writers accused of helping the Japanese like Camilo Osias lived on and even prospered, Alvero died of a heart attack in 1958 aged just 44, leaving a stain on his family’s name (his mother, Rosa Alvero, continues to be honored with a street in her name in Katipunan, Quezon City). Hardly any pictures of him can be found today, even on the Internet.

A letter from prison to his second wife, whom he called “Silahis,” reveals an inner torment that was probably the greatest cost of all. He writes:

“Makailan ko nang sinabi sa iyo na ang pagmamahal na tunay ay nasasalig sa pagtitiwala at ang di nagtitiwala ay di maaring lubos ang kaniyang pagmamahal? Gayon man, hinahagkan kita nang buong paggiliw, sabay ang dalanging nawa’y pagkaluuban ka ni Bathala ng pag-uunawa at pagtitiwala sa akin. Ang nagmamahal mong asawa, M. Asa.”

(How often have I told you that true love depends on trust, and that one who cannot trust cannot love completely? Nonetheless, I kiss you with all my heart, even as I pray that the Lord grant you trust and understanding for me. Your loving husband, M. Asa.)

Penman No. 419: Pages from the Past

Penman for Monday, July 19, 2021

LAST MONTH, two precious documents came my way. The first was a magazine with a unique idea behind it. It was a copy of Story Manuscripts, “a collection of unedited stories,” Vol. 1, No. 2, from February 1935. No more than mimeographed copies of the authors’ typewritten manuscripts between two hard covers, this issue brought together stories from Amador Daguio, Manuel Arguilla, Francisco Arcellana, Manuel Viray, and H. R. Ocampo, among others. 

Ocampo’s presence was especially interesting. I knew that National Artist Hernando Ruiz Ocampo (1911-1978) was a short story writer before he turned to painting, but he was this magazine’s publisher as well. What was exciting for me (as a writer and literary editor, especially of Arguilla) is that I’d never come across these stories before under these titles, so they’re very likely undiscovered stories or early drafts of later ones, being “unedited,” as the Story Manuscripts tagline claims. 

Arguilla’s three “Fables Without Moral”—I have to check if they appeared in the book of fables that his wife Lyd published after his death and credited him for as co-author—are a surprise. They all have to do with, uhm, procreation, rendered in a mock-mythic tone. I would have to revise my introduction to the Arguilla anthology I edited three years ago to account for these risqué diversions. Here’s a sample:

“But soon he awoke for an earthquake shook his newly-found home and a storm tossed the forest of hair and a groaning and moaning filled the air. Then a downpour such as he had never before known drenched him, buried him in its thick flood.” (Hint: “he” is a vagabond ant.)

The Arcellana story, “Cool,” is quintessentially Franz—the young and ardent admirer (the author himself was just 18 then) watching his beloved from a distance, chanting over and over again, “I see her but I do not want to see her looking at me.”

H. R. Ocampo’s “Nativity” is, unsurprisingly, visual: “The big round eye floated gently upward and upward. Then it ceased floating upward. It ceased floating and winging upward and was suspended in space. Then it was dark. Darkness all around. Darkness for a brief one millionth second.

“After the brief one millionth second the big round eye came back seeing everything and nothing in a whirling sphere of soft jelly-like mass of white and black and red and green and orange and blue and violet.”

There’s an interesting biographical footnote to the Ocampo story: “Hernando R. Ocampo was born on April 28, 1911 in Sta. Cruz, Manila. Began writing two years ago on a dare and thought that writing was ‘just like that’ when his first effort was immediately accepted by Mr. A.V.H. Hartendorp of the PHILIPPINE MAGAZINE, but a series of rejection slips from the same and other local editors later toned down his ultra-optimistic viewpoint—so much so that he actually considered giving up writing ‘for good.’ Fortunately he met Manuel E. Arguilla who through patient coaching gave him courage to try anew.”

The other document I felt extremely lucky to acquire was a plain black folder, rather worn, with about 60 to 70 pages in it of what was obviously a carbon paper copy. It was also clear, however, that the author of these pages had used this copy to make handwritten revisions on. 

It was a collection of essays written by Lyd Arguilla—and I’m not sure if they were ever published—during a sojourn to the United States in the early 1950s, when she received a grant for further studies in New York. This was just a few years after the war; in 1944, she had lost her husband Manuel, who was executed by the Japanese for his guerrilla activities. Lyd had been active in the resistance herself, and was away when Manuel was arrested. We can only imagine the pain she went through on discovering his loss. By the time she writes about the experience, she has composed herself, but she leaves it to Manuel’s fellow prisoner, a Major Moran, to relate what happened:

“On a tip from Pete Mabanta, Manuel E. Arguilla had already escaped with us out of the city. Friends and fellow members of our guerrilla unit had helped: the Lansang brothers, Ramon Estela, S.P. and Mary Lopez, Koko and Lina Trinidad. But Manuel sneaked back into the city to destroy or put in a safer place some records. He was able to protect the lives of his associates, but did not escape with his own.

“‘Arguilla was accused of being a major in Marking’s guerrillas, of heading an espionage and propaganda unit against the Japanese. Liling (Rafael R.) Roces was charged with publishing Free Philippines and various other acts against the Japanese military.’

“‘Arguilla had enough material, according to him, for two books. All he asked was to be able to live through to write them.

“‘It was on August 29th, early in the morning, about seven o’clock, maybe earlier, that the prisoners in Bilibid were given old clothes to put on (we all wore our underwear), put in handcuffs, and blindfolded. The blindfold was either green or white. The 28 men wore white bands. I thought, being most of them influential men that they would be given better treatment than those of us who were given green bands. I was wrong of course. For I and others were taken to Muntinlupa where we were finally liberated, and the 28, as we learned later, were beheaded at the Chinese cemetery.’

I could imagine Lyd typing those words on a chilly morning in New York and running that awful moment through her imagination. Elsewhere in the folder, she tucked away a love poem she had written for Manuel. Holding those pages, I felt myself in the presence of something close to sacred.

Penman No. 418: Hello, Goodbye

Penman for Monday, July 5, 2021

YESTERDAY, JULY 4, marked the 55th anniversary of the controversial visit of the Beatles to the Philippines in July 1966. 

I was 12, in transition between grade school at La Salle Green Hills and the Philippine Science High School, when the Beatles came to Manila. I can still remember that day, the 4th of July, quite clearly. We were living in Pasig, and my mom and I took a bus to Quiapo, from where we were going to take a jeepney to go to the Rizal Coliseum. She was going to take me to see the Beatles, perhaps as a treat for having made it to the PSHS, a school for smart kids. I certainly felt smart. I knew all the Beatle songs by heart. We didn’t have a record player, but I listened to them on the radio, and sometimes on our neighbor’s TV, when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. We didn’t have tickets, but I was sure we could buy them at the gate. 

We got off at Quiapo, in front of a new theater that had just opened: the Cinerama, which boasted something called “Sensurround,” guaranteed to make you feel an earthquake in your seat. The theater’s inaugural offering was a war movie titled “The Battle of the Bulge.” My mom stopped on the sidewalk, looking up at the marquee. “Let’s watch this instead,” she said. And so we did, and so I missed seeing the Beatles; you could say that I almost saw them standing there.

I was in grief, although to be fair to my mom, the movie was fun, full of tanks and military mayhem.

Not long after came the news that the Beatles were being chased out of the airport by an angry mob, and the story I got was that they had failed to show up at Malacañang for what would have been a command performance. I could imagine Bongbong—three years younger and a few grades behind me at La Salle—standing forlorn on an empty stage, waiting for the stars that never came. I felt torn between sympathy for him and my allegiance to the Fab Four. I thought that the rude send-off was too much, but I also couldn’t understand why the Beatles couldn’t have swung by the Palace and sang a song or two. How hard was that? 

Today, more than 50 years later, I think I can understand that ambivalence. In 1966, Ferdinand Marcos was very much the good guy—heck, he was the guest of honor at our graduation in La Salle! (Incidentally, the sons of his presidential opponents—Diosdado Macapagal and Raul Manglapus—were also in the same school.) He had just assumed the presidency, and still exuded the charisma of a winner. While a private impresario had brought the Beatles over, they were—in some fuzzy official sense—guests of the Republic, hosted by no less than the President of the Philippines. They were ambassadors of goodwill, of the Republic of Liverpool or wherever they came from, and it would have been a normal courtesy to pay a visit to Malacañang for some polite chit-chat and indulge their hosts with a song or two. 

John could have leaned over to ask the young Bongbong, “What’s your favorite song of ours?” while Imelda looked on with a glowing smile, and Bongbong could have shyly answered, after some prodding, “She loves you ye-ye-ye….” Whereupon John would have winked at Paul, who would have protested “But John, we didn’t bring any instruments with us,” leading Papa Ferdinand to pull a curtain aside to show a full array of Gibson and Rickenbacker guitars and Ludwig drums. And that would have led to one, two songs, the obligatory encore, with Imelda and Ferdie launching into an impromptu dance, and cheers and laughter all around, culminating in a Rajah Sikatuna award or some such for the quartet.

But of course none of that happened. The Palace invitation went unanswered, the catered leche flan cooled and curdled, and the tapping of Ferdie’s and Imelda’s fingers on their hardwood armrests telegraphed disbelief, then irritation, then anger. A dejected Bongbong might then have muttered, “I like the Rolling Stones more, anyway….” Ferdie would have whispered a few words to an aide; Imelda would have stood up, and with a wave of a hand ordered all the dish covers and warmers shut—“Serve it to the dogs!”—and retired in a huff to a drawing room. Meanwhile the Palace aide would have gone down to the Beatles fans gathered at the gates below, and ordered them to go home: “They’re not coming. They snubbed the President!… Who do they think they are?”

“More popular than Jesus,” of course, John had said in an interview with a London newspaper just four months earlier, commenting on the general decline of faith in modern life more than anything else, but now was a perfect time to lift that out of context and expose the Beatles as heathen ingrates. Southern Baptists burned their records and the Ku Klux Klan picketed their US concerts. Some Pinoys chased them to their plane—as many others wept, just to make that clear; to them, the Beatles were certainly more popular than Marcos.

Penman No. 417: From Cory to Covid: An Alternative History

for the Star’s 35th anniversary, July 2, 2021

WHEN THE Philippine STAR was founded 35 years ago, we were still enveloped in the euphoric glow of having successfully deposed a dictator peacefully and installing an icon of democracy in his place. I was one of that happy throng on EDSA celebrating what we believed was a new dawn of hope, a fresh opportunity for our people to grow in freedom and prosperity. Like many writers, I ran out of metaphors and superlatives to describe that moment, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. 

Nowadays it has become commonplace—indeed even fashionable in some quarters—to revise and reject that narrative, and to claim that it was a foolish mistake to have replaced a seasoned politician with a rank amateur. Martial law wasn’t so bad; no wanton thievery took place; only a few were hurt for the good of the many; we were never so disciplined, and our streets were never so clean.

How we came to this point—like the resurgence of Nazism in Europe and of racism in Trump’s America—is for me the great mystery of those 35 years, an arc of sorts marked by Cory on one end and by Covid on the other. There’s certainly no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, as should happen in fairyland—which we rather quickly realized, right after EDSA, was not where we were.

For some such as Jose Rizal, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Mozart, Manuel Arguilla, Bruce Lee, Eva Peron, and, yes, Jesus Christ, 35 years was a lifetime. You could have been born in a hospital while the tanks were massing at EDSA, and died this year of Covid, gasping for breath in that same place. Had that happened to me, I would have protested and pleaded, albeit inaudibly through my tubes, that it wasn’t fair, that I deserved a peek over the horizon, at least through to the May election, to see if it was worth the wait—or not, and then slink into sullen slumber. 

During that time, I grew from a young father and a writer on the verge of a teaching career to an aching retiree surrounded by old books and creaky machines, and I have to wonder if our nation fared better and learned as much. Or should I say “unlearned”? At EDSA I learned to hope, to trust in the ideal and the good again, to have positive expectations of the new century looming ahead. FVR and his “Philippines 2000” thumbs-up may have seemed hokey at the time, but there was a genuine spring in that step, a sense of things going in the right direction. And then they began falling apart, the old mistrust and suspicions returned, and we took one president down and nearly succeeded with yet another.

But it wasn’t just us. The closing decades of the 20th century were a time of sweeping changes all over the world. Soon after Marcos fell, a tide of reform and revolution washed across Eastern Europe and eventually into the Soviet Union itself; that union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like the era of dictators and despots was over, but it was not. With Hong Kong in its navel, China morphed into a commercial colossus, proving that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go together. The 1997 financial crisis shook the planet.

After 9/11, whatever remaining hopes we had of a better new century vaporized, and the new specter of terrorism now stalked the globe. Barely had ISIS retreated from the sands of Syria when a new and even more insidious plague, Covid-19, threatened to annihilate mankind. 

Others will remember this period as the age of cocaine, corporate greed, mass shootings, and, generally speaking, a culture of excess, of over-the-top indulgence on whatever floated your boat: drugs, sex, money, power, toys. Very few people had actual access to them, but the media—that’s another whole story—kept glorifying vice as virtue, until many began to believe it well enough to dream. It was Dickens’ “best of times and worst of times” all over again.

That would be the sober—and sobering—summary of what tomorrow’s history books will be saying about those decades. But of course—and thankfully—it wasn’t all politics and the misery that often comes with plays for power.

There’s a part of me that wants to tell the story of these past 35 years as the rise of consumer technology toward near-total domination of our daily lives. Humor me as I recall little vignettes to show what I mean.

When the EDSA uprising broke out, we heard the news over a big black Panasonic radio-cassette player that I had picked up years earlier at the Zamboanga barter trade place (along with the obligatory sotanghon and White Rabbit candies). It was—beside our 12-inch, black-and-white, red plastic-bodied TV—our news and entertainment center in the boonies of San Mateo. It sat on our dinner table, accompanying our meals like a permanent guest, sometimes directing the conversation.

When it spewed out the news that something dramatic was taking place at EDSA, and when we heard Cardinal Sin calling on people to go, we knew we had to. Not long after, we piled into my VW Beetle, turned on its radio for updates, and headed for the trenches. For the next few days or so, radio was king, whether at home, in your car, or in your pocket (yes, boys and girls, there was pocket radio; TV was around but only the coolest people had portable versions).

I missed out on most of the Cory years because I went to America for my graduate studies, and there I became anchored to the payphone for my calls home, clutching a handful of quarters to feed the machine. I had hand-carried an Olympia typewriter to write my thesis on, but then I discovered computers, and in 1991 I lugged home a 20-pound behemoth with all of 10 megabytes to fill up. I felt like a gunslinger—I was going to write the next Noli, protect the weak, and get justice with one floppy disk after another.

Nothing would define the ‘90s more than the personal computer, and I soon equated the machine with creation, the blinking cursor with a challenge to produce. I drooled (and lost the plot) when I watched Scully and Mulder hunched over a super-sexy PowerBook 540c in the X-Files, and when I got my own, it was like Moses receiving the tablets—with a trackpad and an active-matrix display. 

Soon another gadget emerged with which we felt even more tethered to some central brain: the pager, whose insistent buzz enhanced our importance, even if it all it asked was where you were and could you please come home. Fake news had yet to be invented as a cottage industry, but a lot of it, I’m sure, went through EasyCall and PocketBell.

By the time the next EDSA happened, we had something far snappier and more personal than radio with which to undertake regime change. Yes, I was now writing speeches on a Mac, but the messages flew thick and fast on a new gadget—the cellphone. If EDSA 1 succeeded because of radio, this iteration flew on the wings of SMS, the millions of texts (the jokes, the rumors, the calls to action) whose accretion would spell the end for an inebriated presidency. 

As it happened, 2001 would be memorable for another image seared into our consciousness: the collapse of the Twin Towers, brought to us slightly delayed and in full color by satellite TV. We’d had TV before, of course, but had always seen it more as Comedy Central, a box to gather the family around. CNN changed that, and brought the world’s torments to our living rooms. Cheaper TVs, one in every room, had long fragmented the family, especially when Betamax and VHS, the precursors of Netflix, became available.

A few years later, a cellular phone call and a recorder almost took another political giant down, causing millions to gasp and laugh as the tape was replayed on TV and radio over and over. “Ang importante hindi madamay yung sa itaas,” said a female voice, which was exactly what happened. That year, 2005, was also the year a platform called YouTube was born—and thanks to YouTube, the tape can still be heard, for all digital eternity.

Indeed, video, the Internet, and social media would soon change the political and cultural landscape, not just here but the world over, although the Pinoy—perhaps in response to that elusive quest for Olympic gold—has towered over much of humanity in terms of Facebook usage (and earlier, in SMS transmissions). One way of putting it would be that we are the world’s champion usiseros and chismosos, resorting to Twitter or Instagram at the merest hint of an idea, no matter how malformed. 

Today we have an abundance of information and information sources at our disposal—and yet we seem to be as ill-informed as ever, with opinions shaped and manipulated by Sith Lords in the Dark Web. Dismissing newspapers and editors as gatekeepers of the truth—which not all of them have been—we create our own versions and peddle them instantly for a thousand “likes,” the supreme accolade of the early 21st century. Most others might prefer to be simply receivers and forwarders of whatever crosses their screens, the passive agents of mindlessness.

Thirty-five years ago, we drove to EDSA on pure conviction that it was the right thing to do. Without Twitter or even SMS, no one could tell us “Right on!” or “Me, too!” We listened for scraps of news and turned them over and over in our hushed minds; we could be killed; we could be free; would our friends be there; what else did we study for. It was a long drive from San Mateo to my in-laws’ place in Project 4, where we parked the car and walked to EDSA. It was a lot of time to think. 

Thirty-five years is a lot of time, but looking around today, with Filipinos still dying by the gun or by drowning in one’s own fluids in some alien hospital, I have to wonder how this narrative arc from Cory to Covid will end—or how much longer it will go, at least in my lifetime, which naively still yearns for a happy ending.

Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 407: Fifty Februaries

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021

FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.

I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.

I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).

Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits. 

But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.

To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.

They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:

AT SEVENTEEN

At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky

And held, in my right hand, 

A bottle filled with gasoline—

And far more flammable,

Admixtured faith and folly,

Courage and a thumping fear

That my life would not last much longer than

That hour, at once so still and pensive,

The tall grass around my outpost

Silvered by some distant light.

A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called

That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice

Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel

Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,

And my right hand, the young elastic limb

That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky

Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,

Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect

Oblation of that fraught age.

I was, I told myself, prepared to die

And perhaps I might have even 

Believed the lie. 

I never threw that bomb, nor any other

Of the kind. The enemy was more

Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear

Just then—although I’ve seen him since, 

In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—

And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,

Do I know you?” because I thought I did.

The intrepid and unwary die.

The articulate survive, to write poems

And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands

While their left fingers cradle Marlboros

Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems

Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.

These days I hold nothing

More menacing than hat and cane.

I should have feared, at seventeen,

That I would live this long, that I would know

Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—

And still, from time to time, looking down

The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,

Feel barricades of salvaged wood

And gathered stone rising in my chest.

Penman No. 406: Poets and Politicians

Penman for Monday, February 1, 2021

NOBODY EXPECTED a 22-year-old poet named Amanda Gorman to be the runaway hit at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration last month, but there she was, bright and exuberant, delivering a clear and ringing message of hope in her now-famous “The Hill We Climb.” Once you have both grandmothers and teenagers quoting the same verses in their posts, you know that a chord has been struck, a nerve touched, in the national psyche.

Of course, that was another nation, not ours, but I’m sure many Filipinos exulted as well in that new beginning for America after four years of chaos, and not too secretly hoped for a similar return to civility and decency—indeed to optimism and intelligence—where they were. As a boy whose early education was steeped in Americana—nothing too strange in Filipino private schools of the 1960s—I grew up to become something of a junkie for American history and politics, which explains why, for the past three months, I followed every turn of the Trump-Biden saga as if it had anything to do with us (and inevitably, it will; when America burps or worse, we hear it).

There have just been four American presidents who had poets read at their inaugurals: John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013, and Joe Biden in 2021. Robert Frost read “A Gift Outright” for JFK; for Clinton, Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993 and Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” in 1997; for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and in 2013, Richard Blanco read “One Today.” (Many thanks to poets.org for the information.)

As you can see from the titles alone, these poems were flush with positivity, as inaugurals should be. Why only Democrats brought poets along to their inaugurals seems something of a mystery—but then again maybe not, as poetry and the brand of culture it implies could be seen as “soft” by the gun-toting machos who typically vote Republican. 

There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune from 2012, when Mitt Romney was challenging Obama for the presidency, that faulted Romney for his rhetorical gaffes and asked if he could use a poet at his side. (Among his critics was a guy named Donald Trump who called Romney’s language “inartful.”) The Tribune noted that while “the world of poetry… is a liberal tradition,” there was also a smaller category of politically conservative poets—T. S. Eliot and Samuel Coleridge among them—that was still current, and had even been anthologized into a book called, unsurprisingly, The Conservative Poets, published by the University of Evansville Press in 2006. None of these featured poets made it to Trump’s inaugural in 2017.

Surely there must be parallels in our own political history—we even had a president, Carlos P. Garcia, who wrote poems called balak in his native Boholano, and Ferdinand Marcos retained a coterie of Palace poets to sing his and Meldy’s praises. These deserve longer commentary for another time.

Even as I admire Amanda Gorman’s achievement, and especially her delivery, I do have to say that, as a poem, “The Hill We Climb” was far from perfect for me—not that it matters much in the context of what the poem had to do. In modern poetry, we usually suggest that the poem be less direct, less declarative about its intentions, leaving the reader with a little puzzle to figure out. It’s the difference between saying “Nobody loves me like you do” and e. e. cummings writing “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” 

But Amanda was engaged in what we might call public poetry, poetry meant to be almost immediately understood and appreciated by a live audience, so it had to be more obvious in its meaning. That’s why it worked, like a popular song whose refrain people can easily remember; note, too, the rap-like rhyming and rhythm of its lines. What’s important is that the poem connected and made sense of recent events in a way and on a level that news stories and editorials couldn’t, delivered by a young, black poet with a credibility that politicians could only dream of.

Speaking of politicians, I’ve long maintained that leaders incapable of tenderness and of acknowledging their vulnerability can’t be trusted. Poetry’s appeal to the emotions requires a certain sensitivity on the listener’s or reader’s part, but it also engages the mind in ways that force you to go beyond the literal and to make intuitive connections between this and that. Leaders shackled by their own simplistic “us vs. them” mindsets and their self-defensiveness can’t make those imaginative leaps, or appreciate the rich ambiguities of literature, stuck in their rigid dogmas.

This doesn’t mean that culturally literate leaders can’t be tough when they need to be; JFK stood up to Khruschev and the Soviets with a naval blockade when they tried to ship missiles to Cuba. We can only wish other national leaders would be so brave against their nations’ enemies, instead of picking on certain universities for letting their professors and students think and speak freely, which not incidentally are basic to the writing of great poetry.

Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the Philippines Graphic and the BusinessMirror to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow Philippine STAR columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.