Penman No. 260: Meeting Major Kennon

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Penman for Monday, July 17, 2017

 

MY RECENT visit to the University of the Philippines Baguio and its new Museo Kordilerya, on which I reported last week, reminded me of another Baguio-related question which I’d been asking for some time now—in fact, every time I rode up or down Kennon Road, as I did last month. My question was, “Who was Kennon?”

I recall having found the answer to that in pre-Internet days—that he was an officer with the US Army Corps of Engineers who brought hundreds of Japanese laborers over to work on the road—but I didn’t know the details until I actively sought them out online.

 What happened to rekindle my interest was one of those early-morning trawls through eBay, where I typically look for Philippine-related material like old books, maps, and postcards, especially UP memorabilia. Prize finds have included a December 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian, and the first English edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, published in London in 1853.

I buy them when I can afford them, seeing it as my mission of sorts to repatriate these artifacts from the great indifferent and unknowing void out there, but most of the time I enjoy myself just going over the images on eBay and saving them to my hard drive—postcards of Escolta ca. 1910 and 1950, portraits of Carnival Queens from the 1930s, and press photographs of fleeting personalities like the Huk guerrillas William and Celia Pomeroy upon their arrest.

A postcard of Kennon Road—that 33.5-km stretch of zigzag road from Rosario, La Union to Baguio City—prompted me to ask again, “Who was Kennon?” Some Googling and a quick visit to Wikipedia yielded the information that Lyman Walter Vere Kennon (1858-1918) was a decorated US Army officer, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who was a major when he moved to the Philippines in 1899 after postings in Central America and Cuba. He served as the military governor of Ilocos Norte before going down to Mindanao, where he built the road linking Iligan to Lake Lanao. Then he went up north again to work on what would be called, in its early years, the Benguet Road. He finished it in two years, one year ahead of schedule, but not without much toil and sacrifice.

Benguet-Road

The real gem of that Google chase turned out to be an article by Kennon himself—a report he submitted to his superiors in August 1905 and reprinted by the Baguio Midland Courier in September 1957, the full copy of which you can read online here: http://www.baguiomidlandcourier.com.ph/centennial_article.asp?mode=centennial/supplements/kennon.txt.

In that report, Maj. Kennon lays out the scope of the task ahead of him: “The plateau (was) most difficult to access. The first explorers reached it only by following the steep, slippery, dangerous, and obscure trails of the native Igorrote. To make the highlands of Benguet accessible to the white man, the Spaniards, towards the end of the last century, built a horse trail from Naguilian to Trinidad and Baguio and planned an extensive sanitarium and other buildings in Baguio. Insurrection and war prevented the carrying out of the project.

“Soon after the American occupation the manifest need of some such institution was recognized and the Government decided to carry on into effect as soon as practical the plans of its predecessors. Baguio could practically be reached only from San Fernando and Naguilian, necessitating a sea trip of twenty-four hours from Manila and two or three days of horseback travel over a steep trail built by the Spaniards in 1892. In the stormy season, steamers were frequently a week in going from Manila to San Fernando. Evidently, such a trip was quite impossible for invalids and convalescents.”

Less than 18 months after they surveyed the terrain, Kennon could report that “This work had been done between the dates of Aug. 16, 1903 and Jan. 29, 1905—that is to say, in seventeen and one half-months. At the former date, the most optimistic prediction allowed three years for the opening of the road, ‘if it could be done at all.’ Others said it would take 20 years of work, some of the foremen on the road considered that they had ‘a life job.’”

Of course, Kennon’s triumphal report wasn’t the only side to that story. Kennon had imported large numbers of Japanese and Chinese workers to speed things up, and some of those workers stayed on, becoming part of Baguio’s rich cultural heritage. (As the late historian Lydia Yu-Jose would note, however, the real influx of Japanese immigrants would follow later.) Some of those encounters would prove almost unbearably bittersweet. Sinai Hamada’s classic love story “Tanabata’s Wife” draws on that experience, as does this story, recounted here: http://www.filipiknow.net/tragic-story-kato-brothers-benguet/.

Kennon died a brigadier general in 1918, a week after his 60th birthday, unable to join the war in Europe because of poor health, and likely a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic that decimated the global population that year. While a postcolonial view of Kennon Road would have the 4,000 anonymous workers who built the road as its real hero, it can’t hurt to remember or at least know the man who once looked up that mountainside and saw a ribbon of a road in his mind’s eye.

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(Photos courtesy of Erwin Tiongson, Project Gutenberg, and imagesphilippines.com)

 

Penman No. 258: A Boost for Art Education

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Penman for Monday, July 3, 2017

 

I WAS going to write about something else this week, but it’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the room, Ferdinand Cacnio’s sculpture “UPLift,” which has already stirred the biggest art controversy of the year on social media. That it’s happening almost literally on our front yard in UP Diliman makes it even more imperative for me to say something, as people have been asking me to do—given that, with “Vice President for Public Affairs” as my official day job, I’m supposed to speak for UP on matters of public interest, and you can’t think of something more public than sculpture.

That’s also exactly why I have to preface whatever I’ll say here with the disclaimer that I’m writing and speaking today as Butch Dalisay the arts columnist rather than Dr. Jose Dalisay Jr. the university spokesman, if you can separate the two.

With that out of the way, let’s lay out some basic facts. Sometime ago, the UP Class of 1985 Council—a UP alumni group—initiated a project to install the Cacnio sculpture in front of the UP Theater as its donation to inspire “honor and excellence” in the UP community. Smaller versions of the statue were sold to help finance the project. The sculpture was completed and installed, and when the public saw the figure of the nude, golden lady levitating in the air, held up magically only by her hair, their reactions ranged from delight and wonderment to curiosity and agitation—and, sadly, suggestions of plagiarism.

Word began to spread online that the Cacnio piece too closely resembled the Dutch artist Elisabet Bea Stienstra’s 2001 sculpture “Virgins of Apeldoorn”—a charge that Cacnio stoutly denied; he had never, he said, seen the Stienstra work. Soon, as images of other levitating figures in global sculpture emerged, a lively and impassioned discussion erupted over the possibility of plagiarism and the even larger issue of the work’s representation of its subject.

So, what do I think?

First, plagiarism: the similarities may seem obvious, but then so many things in life and art are similar, whether by nature or by design, or even lurking in a kind of universal subconscious. The basic forms we encounter in everyday life—the human face and body, four-wheeled vehicles, trees, birds—are after all pretty much the same. (While we’re at it, just count the number of statues of naked men with arms outstretched that you can find online, from ancient Greece to Africa.) Most portraits follow the same format, even the same pose, but no two faces will ever truly be the same.

When two art pieces are so strikingly alike, it’s almost pointless to state the obvious—that one is a “copy” of the other. Rather, it’s much more fruitful to observe and study the nuances that separate the two. When you come to think of it, art is much more about differences than similarities. And let’s not forget that we live in an age of parody and homage, of memes that recycle the same fundamental image, with incremental changes.

As the painter Imelda Cajipe Endaya pointed out, however, worthier of discussion than plagiarism is the politics of representation: does the piece truly elevate women, or does it—being naked and supine—merely repeat what too many (and often male) artists have already said about women? (This reminds me how, in 1989, an anonymous group of women artists calling themselves the “Guerrilla Girls” plastered New York with posters asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” They were responding to a 1984 MOMA show that had only 13 women out of a total of 169 artists.)

With all due respect to the artist whom I’ve never met, my own sense—and here I go with my street-level appreciation of the work—is that it was in a way too passively traditional, that it missed an opportunity to highlight aspects of the female body and psyche other than its idealization.

I know how annoying it is for artists to hear comments like this, but criticism comes with the territory, even if I firmly believe the artist’s freedom of expression to be paramount, indeed near-absolute. It’s tempting and natural for viewers to wonder how the same idea might be worked by another artist—say, Agnes Arellano or Julie Lluch (or the American M. L. Snowden). That kind of speculation, while moot, is also part of our education.

As I told the TV journalist who interviewed me as UP VP about the controversy (and this is as official a statement as I can make), “The work in question was donated and accepted in good faith. Matters of artistic judgment and intellectual provenance are probably best resolved by artists themselves, by courts of law, and perhaps ultimately by the court of public opinion.”

No matter how “UPLift” appeals to us (or not), we should thank its creator for making this discussion possible, because very rarely does art capture the public imagination, as this work has. It’s certainly been worth a semester’s classes in Art Appreciation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our responses to art are conditioned by our experience, our preferences, and our projections—in a sense, by what we expect to get out of the work or what want it to be.

Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

Chancellor Ray Rovillos, Members of the UP Baguio Faculty and Staff, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Graduating Class and their Proud Parents, Families, and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

GOOD AFTERNOON, and thank you all for having me here today as your commencement speaker.

Let me begin with a confession. If you were expecting someone more famous, more accomplished, and more handsome than me to be standing at this podium here today, well, so was I. No one is more surprised than I am to be your guest speaker.

I woke up at 5 am yesterday to attend the UP Manila graduation at the PICC, rushed back to Diliman to pick up my bags, then took the long, leisurely ride up to Baguio, recalling the days when, as a young boy, I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim “student power,” pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.

Those happy memories embraced me as I arrived in my hotel last night. Chancellor Ray had thoughtfully sent me a copy of the program, and after dinner, just before I went to bed, I opened the program, curious to see who the commencement speaker was going to be. And then I saw my name. Oh my god—it was me!

And it’s all my fault, because I’d told Chancellor Ray that President Danicon couldn’t make it—he sends you all his warmest congratulations, by the way. But I had volunteered to represent him, because it would give me the best excuse to enjoy Baguio all over again, to sit here and listen to some wise person talk. Apparently, Chancellor Ray reasonably took that to mean that I was also going to speak in the President’s stead. So here I am, the dutiful surrogate who can’t refuse.

But I shall speak for myself, so you cannot hold our President responsible for the outrageous things that I will be saying to this hapless audience.

Thankfully, I had the perfect speech in reserve. That happens when you’re a professional writer and you write many speeches for other people. In this case, it was a speech that I had written for myself and delivered 12 years ago—at the Baguio Convention Center, to the graduating class of UP Baguio of 2005.

Since none of our graduates today was presumably here then—unless you’re a very slow learner—I thought I would resurrect that speech and update it as Ver. 2.0 for our very interesting if troubled times.

Former President Dodong Nemenzo—my old boss—was frankly not too fond of the phrase iskolar ng bayan to describe the UP student. We are all, of course, scholars of the people in this university, in the technical sense that our studies are subsidized by the sweat of the masses, whose hopes we bear upon our shoulders.

But his point was that scholarship was a distinction to be earned not merely by scoring well in an entrance examination, but by adopting a lifelong attitude of critical inquiry and rational judgment.

This, sadly and ironically, is something that many of us lose upon our entry into the University and our immersion in its life. The curiosity ends, the magic fades, the writing dries up, and we retreat to a cocoon—to a dimly lit room marked “Me & Myself”—there to spend the rest of our career fretting over the next fellow’s salary grade and so-and-so’s appointment as dean or chancellor.

Many years ago, when I ran for the chairmanship of the Department of English and Comparative Literature—among the oldest, largest, and most pala-away of our departments—I gave the usual homily about achieving excellence in teaching, research, and extension work.

And then, I said in my vision paper: “I expect our members to be actively engaged in interests other than their immediate subjects—in social and political concerns, in creative projects, in new technologies—to save them from the kind of small-mindedness or tunnel vision that can result from locking yourself up at the Faculty Center. In other words, get a life.”

“Get a life” has actually been one of my lifelong mantras. I have always believed that while a formal education is a wonderful thing, what I call an active life—with all its serendipitous detours and little accidents—is even better. It’s a cliché by now to say that there are many things we can never learn in school—but for those of us who are in school, it’s even more important to remember this.

As a mentor to many young students, I have always advised those burning with the desire to teach or to go on to graduate studies—in other words, those who want to stay in the university—to spend a few years first outside of it: to sell insurance, work at a call center, make some money—so they can get a sense of what everyone else goes through, and give their poor parents some relief. And then they can return, enriched by their experience.

When people complain to me about the emptiness and confusion in their lives, I feel sad because I know that only they can ultimately help themselves. But there’s a principle in fiction writing—in plotting and characterization—that might offer a solution to the perplexed. When my writing students tell me that they no longer know what their characters should do to solve their overwhelming problems, I tell them to take their characters out—literally and figuratively. Get them off their butts, make them walk, make them ride the MRT, put them on a Ferris wheel, bring them to the Navotas fish market at four in the morning. Too many stories try to resolve themselves in small cafes and bedrooms, behind shut doors and windows.

Some of the best things happen when we step outside of our own lives and begin to be engaged in those of others. Often, the answers to our own problems lie in others, and in their larger predicaments. While involvement in a great cause can also create its own kind of blindness to everything else, I believe that, at least once in our lives, we should embrace a passion larger than ourselves; even the disillusionment that often follows can be very instructive, and will bring us one step closer to wisdom.

I would not have been the writer I became if I had chosen the safe path and stayed where I was supposed to be.

At 17, shortly after graduating from the PSHS and entering UP as an engineering major, I dropped out as a freshman—over the tears of my mother, whose fondest hope was for me to graduate from UP just like she did. I wanted to join the revolution, like many of my comrades; at the same time I was impatient to get a job. At 18, I was working as a newspaper reporter covering hospital fires, US embassy rallies, bloody murders, factory strikes, and disaster operations. I spent most of my 19th year in martial-law prison.

At 20, I was a husband and father. At 22, still a dropout, I studied Development Economics as a special student, and later worked as an economist with the UNDP. At 26, I took my first foreign trip. At 27, I learned how to drive—and went back to school. At 30, I got my AB, and decided that what I wanted to do was to write and teach for the rest of my life. I found a scholarship in the US. It took me two years to finish my MFA, and only three to finish my PhD, to make up for lost time, and came home, and here I am, about 30 years and 30 books later.

It’s been a messy, crazy, but blessedly glorious life. I have been shot at, imprisoned, and worst of all, rejected by more crushes than I care to remember. Aside from my abortive career in journalism, I once worked as a municipal employee, checking the attendance of street sweepers at seven in the morning. And then I studied printmaking and sold my etchings cheaply by the dozen in Ermita. in the US, I worked as a cook-waiter-cashier-busboy-janitor, cutting 40 pounds of pork and chicken everyday before turning them into someone’s dinner.

Some of these events have found their way to my writing; most of them have not and never will. I believe that creative writing should generate its own excitement, beyond whatever may have happened to the author in his or her own life. But neither can I deny that my outlook has been influenced by what I have seen out there, as bright, as indelible, and as disturbing as fresh blood.

If we are to abide by the Phi Kappa Phi motto to “let the love of learning rule humanity,” we should first ourselves be ruled by the love of learning—learning from books, and learning beyond them.

On the other side of the equation, let me observe that there is, today, a nascent but disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway.

It’s easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the edukado, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily bought out by the powers that be. Marcos and Estrada had probably the best Cabinets in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do nothing against their President and his excesses.

Sometimes we never learn. Today, once again, some of us are tempted by the notion that because we seem to have made a mess of our freedom, because EDSA didn’t seem to work, then maybe giving up our rights and freedoms and letting someone else do the thinking and choosing for us is a good thing. Think again.

That’s what we UP people are good at—thinking, and thinking again.

To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission—not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason—by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals.

You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UP because no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.

Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt—the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.

I thought that my hardest days as an activist were over at EDSA. Now I have to think again. I thought that I had done my bit for UP by serving as Vice President 12 years ago. When President Danicon asked me to take on the same job last January, I had to think again. I said yes, because you can’t refuse when UP calls—di rin magbabago ang damdamin. I actually wept when I told my undergraduate class that I was going to be a VP again, because nothing makes me more fulfilled than teaching a roomful of undergraduates, and working in Quezon Hall was going to pull me away from them. I’ll tell this to all of you now, 18 months short of retirement: teaching people like you has been my greatest privilege.

In the first edition of this speech that I gave 12 years ago, I told my young audience to do things like read a good book, play the guitar, learn how to swim, and have fun. I’m going to update that by sharing the sort of things I told my undergrads, things my wife and I have told our only daughter all her life.

  1. Do something different, do something stupid, do something risky. Just don’t die, or land in jail—although landing in jail gave me a prizewinning novel about martial-law prison 20 years later. Nobody who didn’t take risks ever made a difference.
  2. My teacher in German taught me a saying: “Ein Fehler ist kein Fehler”—one mistake is no mistake. Or as my billiards buddy used to say, “We’re all entitled to one big failure.” Nothing will teach you better than that one big mistake you’ll make—so go ahead and make it, but make it worth it.
  3. And finally, I’ll repeat what I said at the end of that first speech—get a life, and get a good one!

Mabuhay kayong lahat, mabuhay ang UP, at marami pong salamat!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 253: Wealth You Can’t Buy

IMG_1773Penman for Monday June 5, 2017

 

BENG AND I flew down to Iloilo City two weeks ago—she to hold a workshop on art restoration at the University of San Agustin, and I to attend Pagtib-ong, an International Conference on Intangible Heritage organized by the University of the Philippines Visayas at Casa Real—so it was a culture-heavy weekend, but happily so.

And what, exactly, is “intangible heritage”? Simply put, it’s wealth you can’t buy, of the cultural kind—the songs, stories, dances, traditions, practices, and beliefs of people, especially of those outside the increasingly homogenized and globalized mainstream. At a time when we’re all watching (and paying for) the same shows on Netflix and having the same Americano at Starbucks, younger Filipinos are fast losing touch with their own cultural roots. “Pagtib-ong” means “putting on a pedestal,” so this time and for a change, it’s our intangible heritage taking center stage.

UP President Danilo Concepcion framed the context well in his message that I read for him: “As nations and societies modernize and move deeper into the 21st century, the emphasis on material growth becomes even more pronounced, often obscuring all other considerations. Those considerations include intangible heritage—the cultural threads that bind not just people together but the past and the present, and indeed the present to the future. Our intangible heritage speaks to the very soul of our cultural community. It may not have much monetary value, if at all, but it is priceless in terms of containing, preserving, and propagating the values we seek to transmit from one generation to the next.”

Politicians will wonder how studying folk songs, kitchen practices, and the vocabulary of obscure languages can be important to national development, and it will be for us—both as scholars and cultural advocates—to show them how and why. Gatherings of scholars such as Pagtib-ong are rare and valuable, but we should also learn how to translate and communicate the significance of these events and their implications for our societies to a larger audience.

Just to give you an idea of what went on at Pagtib-ong, I’ll give you a sampler from the talks of the scholars who presented their research at the conference, and note the Asian and Filipino values and practices that I culled from their work.

Harmony. Pham Thai Tulinh of Lu TuTrong Technical College in Vietnam, the granddaughter of a general and a poet, had this to say about “QuanhoBac Folk Songs”: “The women traditionally wear distinctive round hats and scarves, while the men wear turbans, umbrellas and tunics. The Quanho folk songs are always performed voluntarily in groups of male or female (singers)…. A group of females from one village sings with a group of males from another village with similar melodies, but different lyrics, and always with alternating tunes. In each group, one person sings the leading tune and another sings a secondary part, but the two should be in perfect harmony at the same timbre.”

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Continuity. Anna Razel L. Ramirez of the University of the Philippines Visayas reported on “Dungkulan: The Eternal Fire”: “A dungkulan is a large piece of wood that provides kitchen fire and ensures that an ember is always available to start a fire in the absence of matchsticks…. More than a fire starter for food, dungkulans are significant in the lives of people in the countryside and in the mountain areas. It is the source of warmth at nighttime, a reliable source of coffee on cold mornings; a steady source of warm water for health emergencies; and what many others need from that slow burning log that sustains the dapug and the lives of the people attached to the dungkulan.”

Conversation. Jose R. Taton Jr. of the Philippine Women’s University spoked on “Talda for Mixed Chorus”: “The talda is one of the various forms of musical repartee practiced by the Panay Bukidnon of Central Panay. Considered as a tukod-tukod (creative invention) tradition, it involves a dynamic altercation of deep sentiments of longing and love from singers who actively and spontaneously stream words (gina-gato) using metaphorical and figurative language. It is sung at leisure at any occasion, and the length of the musical conversation varies depending on the conscious and willful response of both parties.”

There were dozens more of these fascinating talks on the menu—I was especially taken by a lecture on Panay’s fabled golden boats by Dr. Alicia Magos, herself a legend in folklore studies, because it reminded me of the golden boat with my grandfather’s name emblazoned on it, reported to have been seen in Romblon off Calatong, our own enchanted mountain—but alas, we all had to return to our more tangible existences.

Many thanks and congratulations to UPV Chancellor Dr. Rommel Espinosa and Conference Chair Prof. Martin Genodepa for reaffirming the position of both the Visayas and intangible heritage in our cultural and social maps.

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Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.

 

 

Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

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Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

WE HAD some very distinguished visitors over at UP from James Cook University in Australia last week, and while most of them came from the sciences, I was happy to join the team that greeted and met with them, led by our very capable Vice President for Academic Affairs, the sociologist Cynch Bautista. These growing partnerships are part of UP’s continuing effort to assume a more international outlook—to imbibe the best of what leading universities around the world have to offer while projecting and sharing our strongest academic and intellectual resources as well.

While most of our international academic exchanges have traditionally been conducted with universities in the West, especially the United States, we have increasingly and consciously broadened our reach to embrace more universities within the region—Taiwan has been a very active partner of late—and Australia should be a logical focus for more of these exchanges.

I myself have had the pleasure of visiting Australia several times—as a visiting writer with the Australia Defence Forces Academy in Canberra, as a guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival, and as a speaker at literary conferences in Perth and Melbourne. What has always impressed me about Australia is not only the sheer vastness of the land, but also the openness and friendliness of the people I’ve met there, and their refreshing informality.

Though not that old—it was established in 1970—JCU has risen quickly to become one of the world’s top universities focused on the tropics, with cutting-edge research in such diverse but important areas as rainforest monitoring, natural disasters, reef management, and vaccine development. Aside from campuses in Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, it also has a campus in Singapore offering courses in business, education, and health sciences.

Our leading UP scientists and administrators had much to share with their JCU counterparts, with UP Los Baños touting its research in nanobiotechnology and biofuels, UP Manila studying ways of dealing with dengue and hookworm, and the Marine Science Institute promoting conservation of genetic diversity and fishery sustainability.

But aside from these concerns, what I personally found fascinating was a discovery I made while looking up the background of our historical relations with Australia. On academia.edu (a treasure trove of academic papers), I ran into an essay written by the noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto and published in 1993 by—coincidence?—James Cook University. The essay covers Philippine-Australian interactions in the late 1800s, and makes an early point about Australia being the second largest market for Philippine coffee and the largest one for sugar in the mid-19th century.

But the essay goes far beyond economic statistics to relate the remarkable stories of two Australians in the Philippines and one Filipino immigrant in Australia. It wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to bring up at our meeting, so I kept my amusement to myself over what Dr. Ileto found:

“The first Australian revealed to us by the Spanish records was an illegal entrant—a nameless and unwelcome woman…. This Sydney woman, [the British consul] pointed out, was definitely not the sort of person the governor-general would allow to stay. And true enough, the latter decreed that she was to be transported without any more delay to Sydney … ‘without permission ever to return to these islands.’

You can guess what this plucky if unlucky lady’s profession was. She would be followed in the annals by one Charles Wilridge Robinson, who first appears in 1880 and “for nearly every year” for at least 17 years “was brought to court for some offence or other,” typically involving a heightened state of intoxication and acts “of a piratical nature,” including “borrowing” a boat for six weeks and sailing down to Palawan.

But my interest peaked and my heart swelled when I came to Ileto’s account of a Filipino who became a successful businessman in Queensland and also a revolutionary patriot. Heriberto Zarcal was a jeweler in Santa Cruz, Manila who moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (facing Papua New Guinea) in May 1892, and soon offered his services as a “Lapidary and Optician, Goldsmith, Watchmaker, and Pearl Cleaner.” Filipino sailors—then known worldwide as “Manilamen”—had become pearl divers in the area since the 1870s. Zarcal grew rich, “mentioned as one of only five men on the Island licensed to deal in pearls… [who] had just acquired his own fleet of pearling vessels.” So successful was he that a European competitor complained by asking “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?”

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What was unique about Zarcal was how—even as he had assumed British citizenship to be able to run a business—he flaunted his sympathies for the revolutionists back home, to the point of displaying a big sign saying “NOLI ME TANGERE” on top of his establishment. I’ll let Rey Ileto tell rest of the story in his own words:

“Zarcal, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, must have been among the many expatriate nationalists who consulted with Aguinaldo. An issue of the Hong Kong journal Overland China Mail which appeared in late March 1898 reported that Zarcal had commissioned the construction of three pearling schooners and named them the Aguinaldo, the Llanera, and the Natividad—in honour of three Filipino generals who had won victories against Spanish forces.” (He would give his other boats names like Sikatuna, Magdalo, Kalayaan, Justicia, and so on.)

“After 1905 Zarcal maintained only a handful of boats for pearling. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on his Thursday Island business as pearl-buyer and jeweller, augmenting his local stock of pearls with purchases from Port Darwin and the Dutch East Indies. Characteristically, perhaps, the final episode in his life was an extended journey to Europe begun in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Zarcal are said to have paid homage to their monarch, the Queen of England, presenting her with a huge pearl. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the Great War, the Zarcals waited it out in Europe, finally renting a flat in Paris in early 1916. There, on 9 February 1917, Zarcal succumbed to a stomach ulcer. At his deathbed were his wife Esther and ‘an old friend from Thursday Island,’ the Rev. Father Ferdinand Hartzer.”

So ends this amazing story, a gift from Down Under which I would never have heard of if I hadn’t been told that we were going to play host to some colleagues from James Cook University—which, to complete the circle, now runs a school on Thursday Island.

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

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Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

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Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

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(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

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(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)