Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

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Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

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There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas

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Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019

 

FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.

 

 

 

Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 365: “Tenderness Is Radical”

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A RECENT talk of mine to the graduates of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines seems to have gone viral, but what people don’t know is that there were several of us who addressed the graduates that night—it was a testimonial dinner, not the commencement ceremony itself. All the other speakers shared delightfully inspiring remarks, but one impressed me in particular—Hannah Reyes Morales, a young but already globally renowned documentary photographer who graduated with a Speech Communication degree from UP just eight years ago. Hannah has done prizewinning work for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic, some of which you can find on www.hannah.ph. I asked for and got her permission to share excerpts of her talk.

Today, I want to talk to you about building the possible.

When I left these halls I was a scrawny 20-year-old, putting herself through the last four semesters of school by selling ukay clothes online and photographing drunk people in bars on weekends near Tiendesitas as an event photographer. I couldn’t join my friends in eating out because I couldn’t afford it, I owed rent money to the building in Xavierville where I lived, and my mom was convinced that any dreams I had for a career in the arts and photography were a quirk and a passing fancy, and that after graduation I should apply for a job as a teller in a bank.

I honor this part of my journey. It was during this period that I learned to speak with strangers, to hustle for each paycheck, and what the true necessities were. I learned to be efficient with my time, but I never, ever lost sight of the work my heart wanted to do.

I hope that you figure out how to build a home where your creativity, your curiosity, your sense of purpose, and your wildness can keep growing. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that the world needs more safe hands working towards better.

As a photographer I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s spaces. I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask people to help me understand things I couldn’t quite grasp.

Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that I get to confront the world. Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that the world confronts me, and tells me the truth.

I’ve been offered meals by people who were hungry, allowed into moments of great vulnerability. I’ve photographed people swept up in conflicts that they had nothing to do with. I’ve seen people driven from their homes. I’ve witnessed loss and devastation.

And in the midst of horrors I saw how beauty and kindness persist. People with incredible grace, reminding me that the world doesn’t owe me anything. I met Puti, a young girl in extreme poverty, who called herself a queen. I carry her story with me every day, I hold it in my heart.

Their truths have informed my own. I hope when you meet people with a vastly different reality that their truths might also inform yours.

And when you’ve finally built towards freedom, use it to plant gardens around you, to build bridges and safe spaces. Manila can be a hostile place for artists and for dreamers. I don’t know what I would have done without people who make it less so.

My life is only possible because of the love that my friends embrace me with, the safety that enables me to do more, to dream bigger, to imagine all that is possible yet.

My own strength stems from love, my bravery blooms from the tenderness of others.

As artists our hearts and minds are needed by our land. Our gaze, and our ability to think differently are needed in envisioning better for our country, and our world.

Our generation—yes, I’d like to think that I’m still part of this generation—inherits a future that needs visionaries. Climate change, refugee crises, the rise of impunity are all realities that await outside these doors.

When I opened my eyes what I saw brought me to tears. But I always knew that closing my eyes again would not make the adversity stop. There will be those who will tell you to just keep them shut, to care a little bit less. They will tell you that you will be happier if you didn’t give a damn.

It took me a while to own that that was never who I was. It took me a minute to understand that sensitivity wasn’t a weakness. That tenderness is radical.

There is a line from Audre Lorde that I hold on to, very fiercely.  ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’

So today I implore you to use your strength—whatever form it takes—in the service of your vision. Make your time here count. Pay attention to that which makes you feel awake, and living—the hard work will come.

And lest we forget: the good, the beautiful, the wild, and the miraculous await outside these doors, too. Keep them alive.

 

Penman No. 361: Intelligence Without Values

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Penman for Monday, July 8, 2019

 

IT’S NOT very often that a writer or artist gets invited to talk to an audience of science people, so I feel privileged to have done that a few times, most notably in 2004, when I spoke before the National Academy of Science and Technology on “The Role of the Humanities in Our Intellectual and Cultural Life,” and these past two years when I addressed the graduating classes of the UP College of Science and College of Medicine.

But I didn’t feel as personally invested in those talks as when, last week, I spoke at the curricular review workshop of the Philippine Science High School, being someone who had dreamed of becoming a scientist and who actually tried to become an engineer and an economist before settling for an English major.

I entered the PSHS in 1966, long before there was a Philippine High School for the Arts for the artistically inclined, but even given the choice today I would have stayed with the PSHS, to which I’m forever grateful for giving me a dry-eyed, rationalist outlook to ballast my more extravagant impulses.

I reminded my PSHS audience that despite the best efforts of our science managers and educators, we Filipinos continue to live in an environment largely indifferent if not hostile to science. Indeed our artists and scientists have something in common—they don’t figure in making national policy in this country, which is lorded over by politicians, businessmen, generals, priests, and even entertainers.

This establishes a special and urgent mission for our graduates—to matter not just in the laboratory, churning out papers for academia and products for industry, but in society itself, to help Filipinos make more intelligent and responsible choices based on truth and reason. They should not only be proficient in the traditional academic disciplines, but should—even and especially at this early stage—be potential thought leaders, citizens of conscience, champions of truth, reason, and justice.

I recall, with both pride and sadness, the kind of such public intellectuals that our first batches produced—the likes of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, Roberto Verzola, Rodel Rodis, and Ciel Habito; some became scientists, some did not. But their sharpness of mind was matched by a breadth of spirit that saw them engaged in the larger discourses of our national life, addressing with authority and passion the great issues of our time.

I am worried that apart from the fact that we produce scientists who are not listened to and are even manipulated by politicians for their ends, we may be producing scientists imbued with talent and professional zeal but without values—smart people who cannot tell good from bad and right from wrong. Recall Dr. Faustus, the medieval progenitor of Hollywood’s mad scientist whose insatiable thirst for knowledge comes at the expense of his soul.

The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values. We have geniuses aplenty, many of them employed by those in power, but like their despotic bosses they are moral idiots who have lost their sense of outrage and their fear of God. They laugh at jokes that degrade women, condone if not encourage rape, and betray everything we have been brought up to believe about decency, honor, virtue, and patriotism. There is sometimes no one more corruptible than an intelligent person, because that person believes that he or she can explain and rationalize everything away, including complicity in mass murder and the propagation of falsehood.

Values are a humanist concern; right and wrong, good and bad are established not in the crucible of the laboratory but in the corridors of debate. One of culture’s loftiest functions is to remind us of something larger and worthier than ourselves, something worth living and dying for, like God, family, and country. It will be the humanities that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities; and it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

Humanizing the scientist in training, our young PSHS student, involves more than infusing the curriculum with Humanities and Arts subjects, as important and today as imperiled as they may be. Certainly they need to be exposed to poetry, to painting, to music, to philosophy, and to history as we all were.

But humanizing the PSHS student also means treating him or her literally as a human—as a complex, bright but vulnerable being whose life yet stretches far ahead, an unfolding adventure whose most interesting moments are yet to come.

At this point I brought up what I call the stupid, unscientific, and counter-productive contract that incoming PSHS students are required to sign, binding them to take a science course in college. Indisputably the main mission of a science high school is to produce scientists in training, which our country sorely needs. But I’ve also seen how some kids, bright as they are, burn out in college, dejected by having signed away their option to pursue their heart’s desire. You cannot hold a 12-year-old to a contract that will define what he or she will become for the rest of his or her life.

I’m sure my fellow vagrants like the writer Jessica Zafra, the dancer Nestor Jardin, the indigenous people’s activist Vicky Tauli Corpuz, the historian Rico Jose, the film director Auraeus Solito, the composer Joel Navarro, the model Anna Bayle, and the former SGV partner and Accenture chief Jaime del Rosario, among many others, would agree. Our minds were challenged and enriched by our science education, and that training remained with us for the rest of our lives.

Trust the student; trust his or her intelligence to make the best and most responsible decision for himself or herself. Whatever happens, the great majority of them will move on to a career in science, in any case—not because they have to, but because they want to.

Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

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FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 338: Back to Balangiga

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Penman for Monday, January 28, 2019

 

THE RECENT return of the fabled bells of Balangiga from the American West to their home in Samar reminded me of my fleeting involvement years ago in the effort to draw renewed attention to that traumatic episode of the Philippine-American War.

Sometime in 2001, the late film director Gil Portes called to ask me to work with him on a project that would focus on what people—echoing the American view—were then calling the “Balangiga massacre,” culminating of course in the loss of the bells (hardly the event’s most tragic outcome, considering the slaughter of innocents that the Americans undertook in the attack’s aftermath).

I suppose we were still basking in the afterglow of the Philippine Centennial, and directors were eager to take on historical subjects, long before Heneral Luna would prove that history artfully told could do well at the box office. In fact, our project ran alongside a similar one being put together by the formidable tandem of director Chito Roño and screenwriter Pete Lacaba. (Pete and I were good friends and knew what the other was doing.) The main difference was that our version was going to be a Filipino-American co-production, with the script in English, for a global audience.

I can’t recall now who our producer was, but I knew that Gil was in conversation with US-based financiers, and I did get a down payment for the sequence treatment and the script itself, so we were seriously engaged in the project—seriously enough that Gil and I went on a reconnaissance visit to Balangiga.

Balangiga is a small fourth-class municipality in Eastern Samar, reachable by surprisingly good roads (at least that long ago) from Tacloban across the San Juanico Bridge and past Basey. When we went there, we were billeted in the only “hotel” in town, where the rooms cost P100 a night and I tried to read my notes under a 10-watt lamp. But we were able to find and interview the descendants of Valeriano “Bale” Abanador, the town’s chief of police who led the attack in retaliation against American repression. I was even shown the wooden stick that Abanador was supposed to have waved as a signal to begin the attack that morning of September 28, 1901.

Sadly, after all the research and three drafts of the script, and despite rumors that Sony was going to be involved and that the likes of John Malkovich were being considered for the lead roles, our project fell through, as did the other one. One reason I heard was that in the wake of 9/11, it was proving difficult to bring a battalion of American actors over. Years later, Gil asked me for a copy of the script, thinking to revive the project, but then Gil himself died suddenly two years ago.

I don’t pretend to be a Balangiga expert, although I drew heavily on the writings of such real Balangiga scholars as UP Prof. Rolando Borrinaga and writer Bob Couttie, who have sorted much of the fiction from the facts of the event. I did fictionalize my treatment, as I was expected to do for dramatic purposes, without altering the basic facts as they were known to me. My chief conceit was to create a character named Ramon Candilosas, the fictional son of the bell ringer Vicente, who was a teenager when the attack happened.

My treatment opened this way:

SEQ. 1. Intro. EXT/INT. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Day.

 An old man, around 70, walks across the yard in Fort Warren, Wyoming, to where they keep the Balangiga bells. He pauses before one of them, takes off his hat, and reaches out with a trembling hand to touch one of the bells.

 Later, we see him signing his name with a scratchy fountain pen on a guestbook; a CLOSE-UP reveals his name: RAMON CANDILOSAS. “I do not know everything,” his voice begins to intone. “This is only what my father told me, and what I imagine to have happened in our hometown, in a war over a hundred years ago. It is a war we have forgotten, a war we find difficult if not impossible to believe.”

 Indeed, as I often remark to my American friends, I can understand if few Americans remember the Philippine-American War (downplayed for the longest time in American annals as the Philippine Insurrection). What’s sad is how few Filipinos do. At least writers like the US-based Gina Apostol are reviving that memory through her most recent and highly acclaimed novel Insurrecto, a complex and contemporary take on that century-old event.

But I’m glad for history’s sake that the bells are back, and that, for once, the fact has overtaken the fiction.

Penman No. 333: An Academy of Our Own

DSC_9291.JPGPenman for Monday, December 24, 2018

 

EXACTLY A month ago, in the auditorium of the newest campus of the University of the Philippines at Bonifacio Global City, an event of great historical significance took place—the first general assembly and forum of the newly organized Akademyang Filipino, the first Philippine academy of arts, sciences, and the professions.

Conceived together by National Artist F. Sionil Jose and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, the independent and non-partisan Akademyang Filipino was set up for three main goals:

“To recognize and bring together, in one chamber, the best of Filipino minds and spirits, accomplished representatives of the Filipino arts, sciences, and professions, imbued with love of country and the spirit of service to the nation;

“To uplift the material and moral lot of the Filipino people, to define, promote and defend the best interests of the Filipino nation, and to find and nurture new sources of hope and inspiration for the Filipino youth; and

“To provide a forum for the rational discussion of pressing issues and the exploration of pathways to a better future.”

In other places, such academies have had somewhat more focused roles. The venerable Academie française is devoted to being the authority on the French language; the Taiwan-based Academia Sinica covers a broad range of disciplines but supports advanced research.

In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the collective name of the three honorific academies in those disciplines. Since its founding in 1863, these national academies have pledged “to marshal the energy and intellect of the nation’s critical thinkers to respond to policy challenges…. When faced with a complex question, we bring together experts from across disciplines to look at the evidence with fresh eyes and openness to insights from other fields. These study committees survey the landscape of relevant research, hold public meetings to gather information, and deliberate to reach consensus, which results in a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.” Studies and advice by the National Academies have covered such diverse topics as fixing the Hubble telescope, preventing wrongful convictions, and preparing young Americans for careers in science and engineering.

This is probably closer to what the Akademyang Filipino aims for—to repeat, “a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.”

In our first forum, Justice Carpio gave a masterful presentation of the history of China’s claims to Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea, using ancient maps to prove—as a good lawyer might be expected to do—the paucity of those claims. A panel of Akademya members and West Philippine Sea experts—De La Salle University’s Renato Cruz de Castro, UP’s Jay Batongbacal, and author and columnist Richard Heydarian—discussed the current Philippine government stand on the disputes was and warned against a policy of appeasement and surrender.(The DFA was invited but apparently declined to send a representative to the forum.)

The Akademya’s 100-plus founding members—a roster that could grow as more names are vetted—were selected by an interim board composed of NA Frankie Jose, National Scientist Angel Alcala, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Sen. Sonny Angara, former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Atty. Felipe Gozon, Dr. Lydia Echauz, Ms. Doris Magsaysay Ho, and myself. We also elected Justice Carpio Morales our chairperson, and NA Jose as Chairman Emeritus.

Some easily recognizable faces at the launch included former UP President Emerlinda Roman, former Education Sec. Armin Luistro, former Foreign Affairs Sec. Delia Albert, former National Historical Commission Chair Maris Diokno, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, historian Dr. Ricky Soler, Mapua University President Rey Vea, businessman Jack Ng, novelist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, sculptor Toym Imao, and Anvil Publishing chief Andrea Pasion-Flores.

A smaller group had met less formally for the first time in February last year, when Sen. Ed Angara was still around and very much involved in getting the academy off the ground alongside NA Frankie Jose. It still called itself the “Academia Filipina” then, but later changed its name in deference to an existing Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española.

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This was the first but certainly not the last of our forums, and we intend to have several of these large assembly-type meetings every year for issues of great and general significance, concerning not just politics and business but also science and the arts. We need to create new interdisciplinary points of intersection and interaction. Our artists and scientists hardly ever get heard by our policy makers. With all due respect to the lawyers and the businessmen, they too might benefit from the insights of these other disciplines, so that we do not get mired in the kind of cynical pragmatism that drives too many of our decisions today, and remember to value such abstractions as beauty and logic.

The dues we collect will help support a very small back room and also our future activities. Sponsorships are of course needed and welcome, for so long as they do not compromise the independence of our association.

On that note I would like to thank, once again, aside from our speakers, our sponsors for the Akademyang Filipino event, including the UP College of Law, whose Dean, Fides Cordero-Tan, also happens to be the Executive Director of UP-BGC. I’d also like to thank the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Sen. Jun Magsaysay, and other donors who prefer to remain anonymous for their assistance. My special thanks go to our Executive Director, Ms. Jette Jose Bergkamp, and my UP team from the Padayon Public Service Office and the Media and Public Relations Office.

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.