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.

Penman No. 325: Free to Think, Free to Speak

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Penman for Monday, October 29, 2018

 

I’VE BEEN seeing frothy messages on the Internet calling for the University of the Philippines to be shut down because it seems to be producing nothing more than anti-government critics and rebels (and, uhm, five out the seven new National Artists announced last week).

It’s no big secret that rebellion and resistance are coded into UP’s DNA, because it has always encouraged critical thinking, which in turn encourages—at least for a while, until complacency sets in—an attitude of dissent, of anti-authoritarianism, of rejection of the status quo. That’s how knowledge happens, as every scientist since Galileo has affirmed. Learning to lead requires critical thinking; learning to follow demands nothing more than blind conformity.

Apply that to the political sphere, and not surprisingly, UP has for the past century been a crucible of protest, against both internal and external forces seeking to influence its constituents’ thoughts and actions. Those protests and their causes have ranged from tuition fees, uniforms, and substandard facilities to unfair dismissals, Malacañang interference, foreign control of our destiny, and the overhaul of Philippine society itself.

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In 1928, a law prescribed the wearing of uniforms by students in all public schools, including UP. The uniform for men was a white suit (khaki on rainy days); for women, a white blouse and dress reaching three inches below the knees. UP students opposed the measure, and President Rafael Palma supported them.

In 1933, the first student protest against a tuition fee increase, from P30 to P50 per semester, took place at the College of Education in the form of a boycott led by, among others, Fe Palma—the daughter of the President.

The resistance got more serious when it came to political interference in UP affairs. In the early ‘30s, in a tussle over differing positions on Philippine independence, then Senate President Manuel Quezon punished Palma—and the entire University—by removing UP’s lump-sum allotment. Quezon was a notorious meddler in UP matters, often coming to Padre Faura from Malacañang when he was President astride a white horse. A young UP law student even attacked Quezon for his “frivolity,” accusing Quezon of throwing lavish parties in Malacañang while the country suffered under the Americans. The student’s name was Ferdinand Marcos.

This didn’t stop with Quezon. When President Quirino demanded courtesy resignations from all government officials, UP President Bienvenido Gonzalez refused to tender his, to protect UP’s autonomy.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities conducted a witch-hunt for communists in UP; the committee was led by Cong. Leonardo Perez, himself a former Collegianeditor. A throng of 3,000 students led by Heherson Alvarez and Reynato Puno marched to Congress in protest.

Diosdado Macapagal made few friends in UP when, upon assuming office in 1962, he announced that his choice for next UP President was Carlos P. Romulo, practically bypassing the Board of Regents. Macapagal got his way.

About Macapagal’s successor Marcos, I can only say that as a 17-year-old participant in the Diliman Commune, I carried but never got to throw a Molotov cocktail—but I would have if I had to, firm in the belief that the military had no right to drive their armored vehicles onto UP grounds.

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True, since the 1940s, many of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines have come from UP, from the fascinating Lava brothers to the English major Joma Sison. But UP has also bred Presidents Laurel, Roxas, Macapagal, Marcos, and Macapagal-Arroyo. Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos both spent time in UP before moving elsewhere. We can add hundreds of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet secretaries, and icons of industry, the arts, the sciences and the professions to this list.

In other words, UP has attracted all kinds—communists and socialists, yes, but also capitalists, ultraconservative Catholics and born-again Christians, Rizalist cultists, military agents, the Ananda Marga, and Muslim separatists. Our 300,000 alumni can count saints as well as scoundrels, Jedi Masters and Sith Lords, democrats and demagogues.

And the same thing can be said of top global universities like Cambridge, which in the 1930s was home to what came to be known as the “Cambridge Five,” led by the top Soviet spy Kim Philby. There’s a Communist Party of Canada Club at the University of Toronto, alongside an American Culture Club and a Chinese Christian Fellowship. Even Wharton has a Marx Café, an underground club of Marxist enthusiasts.

When you think about it, apprehensions about UP in 2018 are no more tenable than the charges laid against freethinkers on campus back in the 1940s. And we actually do a lot more than rebel—look into our breakthroughs in research on www.up.edu.ph, which has helped boost our ranking to the top of Philippine universities.

For me, the true heart of UP lies neither in the Right nor the Left, but in that great liberal middle—“liberal” with a small “L”—whose members value the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach, subscribing neither to State propaganda nor to Party doctrine, but trusting their own reason and education to illumine the way forward.

In its editorial of April 14, 1962, the Philippine Collegian wrote this about outgoing President Vicente Sinco, a visionary who fathered what came to be known as the General Education program and who fought to maintain UP’s secular character:

“Dr. Sinco is one of the most liberal of UP presidents. He has stood for intellectual freedom, for the autonomy of the mind…. This particular achievement of Dr. Sinco in… protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity is a challenge to anyone in the future who will occupy the office.”

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Penman No. 324: Where Have All the Great Minds Gone?

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Penman for Monday, October 22, 2018

 

I’M TAKING stock of my latest acquisition of old books and magazines, delivered to my office by a seller who seems to have hit upon a trove of scholarly materials from the 1950s and 1960s, very likely from the estate of one or two of that period’s leading academics.

They include copies of the Diliman Review, a prominent journal of the University of the Philippines since the early 1950s; the University College Journal, from the early 1960s when UP still had a University College in charge of implementing its General Education Program for the student’s first two years; the Philippine Social Sciences and Humanities Review, established in 1929; and Comment, a liberal quarterly from the late 1950s. There’s a special issue of the Philippine Collegian from 1957 devoted solely to the topic of academic freedom. A unique bonus is a copy of the Golden Jubilee issue of the Diliman Review from 1958—UP’s 50th anniversary—a handsome hardbound volume I didn’t even know existed.

As I leaf through the yellowing pages of these journals, a troubling thought looms increasingly larger in my head: Where have all the great minds gone? Indeed, where have all the great debates and discourses gone?

In an age of short attention spans, dominated by tweets, where “likes” and “retweets” have taken the place of scientific verification, there seems to be little room for these ponderous journals and the topics they embrace, whose complexities our times would demand to be reduced to ten-word “hugot” lines or 280-character tweets.

A cursory scan of the contents of these journals and their authors reveals the prevailing anxieties and ambitions of half a century ago: “The Chinese Exclusion Policy in the Philippines,” by Tomas S. Fonacier, PSSHR, March 1949); “The Scientist as Filipino,” by Federico Mangahas (Comment, 1957); “The Filipino Struggle for Intellectual Freedom,” by Leopoldo Y. Yabes (Collegian, 1957); “A Republic Within the Republic,” by Salvador P. Lopez (Collegian, 1957); “A Portrait of the Filipino Composer as Artist,” by Ester Samonte-Madrid (DR, 1958); “On Contemplating a Life: The Study of Biography,” by Nieves B. Epistola (UCL, 1961-62); and “Imagination in History,” by Teodoro A. Agoncillo (DR, January 1965).

What’s interesting is that we’re not just talking about ourselves, to ourselves. A man summarily described in the notes as “a Japanese fiction writer,” Yasunari Kawabata—the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1968—contributes a short story, “The Moon in the Water,” to the 1958 DR issue. The foreign scholars Ernest J. Frei and Francis X. Lynch, SJ essay the development of the Philippine national language and the Bikol belief in the asuwang, respectively. The legendary Ricardo R. Pascual dissects Bertrand Russell, Marinella Reyes-Castillo takes on Andre Malraux, and Juan R. Francisco—later to become an Indologist—explains the philosophy of Mo Tzu. And displaying what it takes to be a true intellectual, Agustin Rodolfo, a professor of Zoology, writes about “Rizal as Propagandist” and “The Sectarian University.”

I see that even government bureaucrats then were expected to be literate and to be able to articulate their policies beyond press releases and interviews. The 1958 DRissue includes essays by Amando Dalisay, then Undersecretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, on “Economic Controls and the Central Bank” and by Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong on “The Need for Economic Statesmanship.”

I wonder how many of these names will still resonate with Filipinos below 40, even within UP itself. I’m guessing that “Agoncillo” might trigger a vague notion of nationalist history, but that will likely be it, which means that we have lost our sense of an intellectual history and of the traditions that colored it—say of the great debates between the University and the State on the issue of academic freedom—and of our sense of quality or even greatness of mind, and what it takes to achieve that standard. Sadly, our academics today are too often trapped in theoretical jargon, in Party doctrine, and in self-obsessed mewling to make truly insightful, original, and meaningful contributions to national discourse.

As I contemplate retirement three months hence, these books and journals remind and make me proud of UP’s past and hopeful for its future, if it doesn’t forget its basic mission as a producer not just of smart employees but of new and bold ideas.

Where are these minds today, and especially, where are they in government—in the Senate and Congress, let alone the Palace—where they should matter most? In an essay for the University College Journal (First Semester 1963-64) titled “The Filipino Scholar,” the late Prof. Leopoldo Y. Yabes—himself no mean scholar of literature and the humanities—complains that government has been taken over by mediocrities:

“It is quite disheartening to see the spectacle of puny, warped minds having anything to do with administration and direction of intellectual activity on the local and national scenes, of unemancipated minds exercising power over other minds more liberated and definitely superior to them, of parochial intellects charged with the solution of problems beyond their ken and pretensions. Their scholarly prestige seems to be built not on the basis of actual meritorious achievement but by means of press release and other mass communications media.”

I turn my TV on to witness the gaudy train of senatorial hopefuls, many bringing little to the table but their showbiz ratings and their connections to power. I turn the TV off and reach for my books.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 320: On Academic Freedom

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Penman for Monday, September 24, 2018

 

Let me dwell this week on the idea of academic freedom, which has been in focus again recently in the light of controversies involving conflicting ideologies on campus. It’s important because universities are the natural home of ideas, and therefore for clashes of ideas, which then take various forms of political and cultural expression.

Modern (and especially secular) universities stand on the bedrock of academic freedom, which at its simplest means one’s freedom to choose what to study and what to teach, and giving value to knowledge—not power, not money, not superstition—as our best guide to the way forward. That knowledge can be gained through research and reason, through experimentation, debate, and creative intuition. Hopefully that knowledge will yield better options for a thinking citizen.

That’s the basic concept, and while it sounds like something no one should quarrel with, the fact is that academic freedom has been under constant threat and attack over the past century, precisely because knowledge and its free expression can be dangerous to those in power. The challenges understandably often come from the Right, but even the Left—preternaturally imbued with a sense of moral righteousness—has not hesitated to throttle academic freedom when it feels justified, such as when neo-Nazis appear on campus in the US and Europe.

Two specific cases come to mind to illustrate both sides of this argument. The first (drawn from an unpublished history of UP) shows State power brazenly applied to stifle freedom of expression at the University of the Philippines.

In the early 1930s, law student and Collegian editor Arturo Tolentino got into a fight with Law Dean Jorge Bocobo over whether he could write about the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, which then-Senate President Manuel Quezon and Bocobo himself opposed. When the Collegian published a news item seeming to support the bill, Bocobo backed the Collegian adviser’s decision to stop printing the Collegian and to burn the 900 copies already printed, on the grounds that the Collegian was not supposed to publish political material. Tolentino appealed to President Palma, who upheld Tolentino on the basis of free speech. But Bocobo appealed to the Board of Regents, which was filled with Quezon allies, and they overturned Palma.

Dean Bocobo reprimanded Tolentino and threatened him with suspension and even expulsion if he kept violating the BOR ruling. But it was Quezon who was most infuriated by the whole affair, and his ire was unmistakably vented on Palma.

Only days after Palma upheld the Collegian’s right to discuss the HHC, the legislature came down hard on the university and imposed a new system of appropriation requiring an itemized budget. Quezon commended the Lower House for probing the finances of UP, stressing that the move was “a distinct service” to the university. Things got worse between Palma and Quezon, and when Palma finally resigned in fatigue after ten years of service, the BOR denied him a gratuity on some technicality, and denied him an honorarium as well. (When Palma died in 1939, however, Quezon stopped everything to be able to attend his funeral, at which he offered generous words of praise for his former adversary.)

The second case involves an aborted debate at Yale University in April 1974, which featured Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel prizewinner for Physics, who had openly proposed that blacks were racially inferior, and that intelligence could be measured by the percentage of one’s Caucasian blood. So repugnant was the notion to many Yale professors and students that they effectively stopped Shockley from speaking, in a fracas that resulted in some suspensions. (And here I have to thank Fareed Zakaria for bringing this to my attention in a recent CNN program.)

A committee was later set up to investigate and assess the incident, and the report of that committee is instructive in what it concluded: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

The committee quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer,1928, that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

That’s a sobering reminder for anyone who professes to uphold academic freedom and human rights: knowledge moves forward not by silencing the other side, but by presenting superior arguments—not always the easiest thing to do, especially without screaming your head off.

Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

I WAS in Chicago two weeks ago to keynote the 17thBiennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), and it was an opportunity not only to catch up with old friends from my time as a graduate student in the American Midwest but also, and more importantly, to have a sense of where the study of Filipino-American history is going.

With 33 chapters now spanning the US from Hawaii to the East Coast, FANHS has become one of the most visible and important Fil-Am organizations (we typically still hyphenate the term but many Filipino Americans no longer do), devoted to recovering, preserving, and promoting the history of Filipinos and their descendants all over that vast country.

It’s a history that dates back to at least October 1587, when the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza dropped anchor off what’s now known as Morro Bay, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On its crew were several luzones indios; today they would simply be called Filipinos. Some men went onshore, and one Filipino was killed by Indians.

Since then, over three million Filipinos have either made that journey, or were born in America to Filipino parents, and in each one of them is inscribed a history of struggle, adaptation, acceptance, resistance, and all degrees of complex responses in between. And as the Filipino population in America has expanded, so have Filipino communities, such as that seminal one that was started by runaway Filipino sailors in New Orleans in the 1760s, which grew into a “Manila Village” that was sadly wiped out by a hurricane in 1915.

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I’d first heard about the Lousiana Pinoys from Jim and Isabel Kenny who produced a fascinating documentary about them in 1992 titled “Dancing the Shrimp” (a reference to the way Filipinos dried shrimp—and grew the shrimp industry—in Louisiana by stepping or dancing on them to music). In Chicago, I was happy to meet Marina Estrella Espina, a pioneering researcher, librarian, and author whose 1988 book Filipinos in Louisiana (New Orleans: AF LaBorde & Sons, 1988) laid much of the groundwork for further studies as the Kennys’ and that of younger scholars like the poet Randy Gonzales, who also grew up in New Orleans but lived for many years in Dubai. Now in her 80s, Marina excited the audience by announcing that she had found proof that Filipinos had settled in Louisiana even earlier than previously thought, and that she was working on a book chronicling Filipino journeys around the world.

From Alameda, California and local historian and Boholano Bob Balandra came the story of the Bohol Circle, a club formed there in 1936 by 16 Filipino immigrants seeking and providing support for each other in a difficult time. Some later joined the 2ndFilipino Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific. Bob and his compatriots are trying to get that historic club and its clubhouse recognized with an official street name.

Elsewhere, the 300 participants in the FAHNS conference spoke on and listened to such topics as community-university partnerships in Alaska; Filipina-American marriages in the Philippine-American War; getting out the Fil-Am vote; the sakadas of Hawaii; Filipino nurses in Illinois; and decolonization and visual art. Film screenings by the noted filmmaker Nick Deocampo and the “Dreamland” team of Claire Miranda, Katrin Escay, and Moshe Ladanga complemented the lectures. Dr. Dorothy Cordova, one of the society’s founders along with her late husband Fred, graced the event. I was particularly glad to meet old friends from the University of Michigan, Dr. Romy Aquino and his wife Necie, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Princess Emraida Kiram, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

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A special feature was the unveiling of a mural depicting the Louisiana experience, produced by the Durian Collective composed of artists Leonard Aguinaldo, Darby Alcoseba, Manny Garibay, Jun Impas, Otto Neri, Orley Ypon, and Art Zamora, who were assisted by Fil-Am cultural advocate Almi Astudillo-Gilles.

Over more than 30 years, FAHNS has become a true community of shared personal, academic, and cultural interests, and has the potential to become a formidable force in American politics, especially at a time when immigration and human rights have become threatened once again by the new regime. But as with many communities, unity of vision and purpose is always a challenge, which was why this year’s conference focused on the theme of “Community for Cohesion and Collaboration.”

In my keynote, I suggested that “The only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

“Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of ‘a common stake’ an increasingly nebulous one.

“If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.”

And so the conference went, looking back into our past for a glimpse of the future.

Penman No. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli and Fili are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines (Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.

 

Penman No. 307: Minding the Magazine (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 18, 2018

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring copies of English magazines from the 1770s so my students in English and American literature could see what people in those days actually read, and what “entertainment” may have meant to them. I noted how magazines are arguably better chroniclers of everyday social life than books, especially since they also came to be profusely illustrated, and may even have sold copies more on the strength of their illustrations than their text.

This was certainly true for Ilustracion Filipina, an illustrated magazine that came out twice a month between March 1859 and December 1860—a pitifully short life-span for such a glorious publication. Not to be confused with the similarly titled La Ilustracion Filipina, published between 1891 and 1905, Ilustracion Filipina featured exquisite lithographs depicting scenes and aspects of Filipino life, produced by such renowned artists as Baltasar Giraudier and C. W. Andrews. I have yet to be so fortunate as to find even one copy of this magazine, which was bought by subscription and lasted for no more than 44 issues. (An 1859 compilation with 14 lithographs by Andrews sold in Spain in 2013 for 1,400 euros.)
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What I did come across in my near-daily trawlings of eBay a few weeks ago were issues of The Filipino People (Vol. 1, No. 12) and Lipang Kalabaw (April 9, 1949). In all these years of looking at hundreds of publications, I had not seen these two magazines.

When I got my hands on them, the older magazine proved particularly interesting, because it was published and edited in Washington, DC by none other than Resident Commissioner Manuel L. Quezon (who would have been about 35 then), “as an official medium for expressing the views of the people whose name it bears.” The magazine is “devoted solely to… the fair and truthful exposition of the relations between the Philippines and the United States, with a view to hastening the ultimate establishment of Philippine independence upon a self-governing republican basis.” Tellingly, its masthead contains a quotation from (of all people) McKinley: “Forcible annexation is criminal aggression.”

As a political magazine, it’s full of polemical articles, not very interesting today to anyone but historians, and brief biographical profiles of Apolinario Mabini, Sergio Osmeña, Emilio Aguinaldo (whose doorkeeper informs the American interviewer “If the American gentleman would be pleased to wait but a moment he would be joined by the master of the house”). It contains a Spanish section, basically a translation of the English pages. While I was hoping for a poem or a short story, the only touches of art in the magazine were a photograph of a majestically clean San Sebastian Church, and the cover (sadly only in black and white) by Fabian de la Rosa.

Lipang Kalabaw, as it turns out (and many thanks to Crispin Ponce for the source material), went through three incarnations—first as a weekly owned edited by Lope K. Santos between 1907 and 1909, with caricatures drawn by Jorge Pineda. This first version struck hard at its political targets, which struck back even harder, forcing the magazine to shut down. Santos revived it in 1922 under banner of Bagong Lipang Kalabaw, promising to be gentler in its tone—but it zeroed in on Governor-General Leonard Wood, and also closed shop after two years following a libel suit. Its third, last, and supposedly most tepid version came out in 1947. (The “lipa” refers to a big-leafed tree.)

My 1949 issue curiously has few real bylines and no editorial board, just pseudonyms like “Binatang Balo” and “Igueng Bel-Bel”—probably the smart thing to do if you were skewering President Quirino and the Congress, with jibes like “Paligsahan sa Pagnanakaw: Ngayon, sa ating Kongreso, and mga usapan ay hindi na ukol sa ‘kung sino ang magnanakaw at sino ang hindi,’ kung di ay ‘sino sa ating lahat ang nakapagnakaw ng lalong marami.’ Samakatwid, lumalalabas na ‘todos na parejo, camaron y cangrejo.’”

Perhaps this magazine deserves a fourth incarnation?

If it’s not too late to dream, one of the things I’d like to do in my impending retirement is to create and edit a magazine—even just an e-zine—I’ll call The Filipinist, devoted to antiquarian books, periodicals, paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, maps, coins, stamps, and historical memorabilia—anything and everything having to do with the Filipino past. It won’t be for scholars (we have enough of those) but for enthusiasts, although scholars would of course be welcome to contribute their insights. I think I should be able to assemble a pretty credible team of editors and writers among like-minded friends and fellow collectors, and in the very least, The Filipinist should fill a gap in media overloaded with articles about tomorrow, technology, and the world out there. And just in case these musings become more than an idle wish, I’ve set aside the domain name for filipinist.ph, as my small personal investment in the future of the Pinoy magazine.

Penman No. 303: A Gentleman of Letters

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2018

 

IT’S BEEN an awful season for writers and lovers of art, as I noted last week. I thought that the passing of Edgardo B. Maranan last May 8 was going to be the last of these woeful events, but no sooner had I spoken at the necrological services for Ed than I was being asked to help put similar rites together for Senator and former UP President Edgardo Angara, who died a few days later on May 13. What an odd coincidence, I thought—first, we lost the two Totis (Bautista and Villalon), and now we were bidding two Eds goodbye.

But among all of those who left us, I felt that it was Ed Maranan whom I knew best. I’d written a biography for Ed Angara, but biographers never really josh their subjects, the way I could do with Ed Maranan. Ed M. invited that, because he dished out a lot of humorous banter himself, even and especially in the worst of times. He could have been in excruciating pain—and I’m sure he was, in his worst days—but he just couldn’t pass up a chance to play with words, as all true writers do.

Most of the eulogies delivered at Ed’s brief wake memorialized and lauded him for his activism—Joma Sison even sent in a statement from Utrecht praising Ed as a “communist,” which he was, at least at some point, as far as I knew. But the Ed I chose to remember was no dour doctrinaire. He loved and enjoyed life immensely (not that communists don’t), and I never heard him spout the Party line; he was too spontaneous, too freely minded, for that.

He was older than me by some eight years, but Ed and I belonged to the same generation of playwrights in Filipino who came of artistic age in the 1970s, a brood that included the likes of Bienvenido Noriega, Bonifacio Ilagan, Nonilon Queaño, Malou Jacob, Reuel Aguila, Rene Villanueva, and Isagani Cruz.

I moved on from writing for the stage to screenwriting later in that decade, thanks to Lino Brocka, and Ed soon asked me if I could help him break into the movies, too. I did—I passed on an assignment that I might have been too busy to do then, a project starring a popular sex siren (and to this day, I wonder why I gave that one away). Later, Ed and I would share another experience—being shafted out of our fees (“nasuba,” in Pinoy screen lingo), and we learned to shrug our shoulders in dismay and disgust.

Our paths crossed again in the mid-1990s, when I got a writing fellowship to Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and had to pass through London—my first trip ever to Europe, or some part of it. Ed had found a job as information officer with our embassy there by that time, and he became my gracious host. Having ushered at the National Theatre, he took me out to free showings of Shaw and Pinter. Having nothing to repay him with, I washed the dishes in his apartment near Goldhawk Road.

We were both named to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 2000. At that point, with 16 Palancas, I stopped joining, and told Ed that it was about time we hung up our gloves. He wasn’t listening. Like his arch-rival Rene Villanueva, he went on and on, until he had racked up more than 30 to Rene’s 27 (Rene sadly passed away in 2007). It wasn’t the prize money, but the exhilaration of joining and winning, with those two.

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A few years ago, in writers’ workshops in Palawan and Puerto Galera, I watched Ed in classic form, charming the ladies with his unstoppable if atrocious puns. I kept rolling my eyes but the ladies kept laughing, much to my growing annoyance. But that was his humor, sly and gentle, as easy on the ears as the guitar he loved to strum.

And then his body began giving up on him, here and there, and he’d message Beng to say, with a rare sigh of sadness, “How the heck did I get a liver problem when I don’t even drink?”

It had been his great dream to go to Hawthornden Castle like I and some other Filipinos had done, and he had been accepted and was all set to leave, but now it was not going to be. Last March, he wrote Hawthornden to say he could barely write with his fingers, and couldn’t come. I could see the deep frustration in his words.

But now he’s off to that great fellowship in the sky with Rene Villanueva, and I hope they hold a celestial edition of the Palancas to keep both guys busy and to settle, once and for all, who the more prolific prizewinner is. Toti Bautista is also going to be there, of course. I hope he enjoys puns because he’s going to get an earful—nay, an eternity of them—from Ed.

So here’s a sad goodbye to a good friend and one of the truest gentlemen of letters I knew. Paalam, kaibigan.

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(Pic from rappler.com)