Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

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I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 282: Never Enough Patriots

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Penman for Monday, December 18, 2017

 

(THIS IS the last of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

Leonard Casper and Joseph Galdon aver that Manuel Arguilla’s best stories are those in the pastoral tradition, and I would agree that “Midsummer” is in a class all its own, but who knows what else he would have written, given ten or twenty more years? Stories like “Elias” convey less surface beauty than his pastorals, but in some ways are more resonant; his last story, “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” is something of a psychological thriller.

This brings to me my main point, which is to propose that to celebrate Arguilla is to recognize and embrace his complexity and even his seeming contradictions. In a sense, he prefigured the situation of many Filipino writers today who find themselves caught between burning local issues and the seductions of the global. The Third World is the new Nagrebcan, and what lies beyond it the new metropolis.

One thing we have to note of Arguilla’s work is that he wrote in English—indeed, a very refined and educated English—which tells us that while he wrote tirelessly and affectionately about the farmers of Nagrebcan, he wasn’t writing to be read by them. That’s not an accusation—only an observation of the fact that Arguilla was very much a member of his literary milieu, a milieu inflamed by proletarian ideals but one that still conducted its passionate debates in English.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Milwaukee, I found a copy in an old bookshop of the March 1936 issue of Story Magazine, America’s pre-eminent fiction publication then, featuring Sinai Hamada’s classic love story, “Tanabata’s Wife.” (I later gave that copy to the Hamadas in Baguio.) The author’s notes mentioned that Hamada had been preceded just the month before by another Filipino writer named Manuel Arguilla and a story titled “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.” Since then I tried to locate that issue, and more than 25 years later, I received it, as a gift from a friend who knew I had been looking for it. The note on the author doesn’t say much, only that “His biography has yet to reach us.” I also just recently acquired, on eBay, a copy of The Prairie Schooner from the Fall of 1935, where can be found a story titled “Midsummer” by Manuel Arguilla. This same journal would also later publish his story “Heat.”

All of these stories—including that of Hamada, who was younger than Arguilla by a year—had already been published in the Philippines. But they still sent them for publication in the US, because it was apparently important for them to do so in their time, just like we seek to be internationally published today not just to find more readers, but to be validated in the global society of letters.

They were young men in their early 20s, brimming with talent and ambition. All they wanted was to write, to be published, and to be read, just like all of you here today. And like many of you, they were outspoken about their beliefs, eccentric and maybe even offensive in certain ways, but totally dedicated to their craft. We lionize them today for good reason, but in truth, as persons and as writers, they were far from perfect, which also means that we can be like them.

Even after his martyr’s death, critical views of Arguilla’s work and legacy have varied widely. Indeed, among his peers, there seems to be a qualified dissatisfaction with his fiction that some of us today would find strange, if not unkind.

As I was preparing for this talk, I was elated to find, in my stash of old literary journals, a copy of the 1952 Literary Apprentice, where five writers—Lyd Arguilla, Ligaya Victorio Fruto, Francisco Arcellana, Edilberto Tiempo, and Alejandrino Hufana—shared their reminiscences of Manuel Arguilla in short personal essays. Lyd sweetly remembers the man and the husband—his bellowing laughter, his flair for fashion, his love of swimming, dancing, jazz, and poker (at least we share something), of Shakespeare, and above all of writing. Ligaya savors the “champaca-laden atmosphere” of the porch at the Arguillas’ house on M.H. del Pilar and the carefree banter of Manila’s prewar literary set, the names and initials of the notables—AEL, AVH, Estrella, Daisy and Bert, SP and Mary, and someone simply referred to by his surname Villa—dropping like cookies along some magical pathway. It all vanishes, of course, in the devastating war that sweeps in from just around the corner—the house, the company, the laughter, the floral fragrance.

Five years Manuel’s junior, Franz recalls Arguilla writing him a letter, urging him to “be true to your real self,” and gifting him with a book with that now famous inscription, “To Francisco Arcellana, May he put more life into his art and less art into his life.” Remarkably, Franz’s memoir ends with a candid admission that “the only thing that pleased me about him was his writing—when he wrote short stories. I didn’t like being lectured to, not even by him…. I shall never be able to forgive him his patriotism. He was no patriot…. He was a writer of short stories. He should have left patriotism alone…. We have many patriots. We don’t have too many writers.”

Ed Tiempo recognizes that “the outstanding gift of Arguilla is his sense of people, his characters,” but adds quickly that “people alone do not make successful fiction.” Ever the traditionalist, Tiempo looks for clearer meaning and coherence in Arguilla’s fiction, but grants that “because we accept the authenticity of the small details, there is something coercive even in (his) unconvincing characters.” Alex Hufana, another son of La Union, does a close reading of “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” and pronounces it authentic, praising the author for keeping “his hand cool even as they hold hot soil—decorum required of him as an artist.”

Whatever your own estimation of Arguilla may be, you will probably agree with me that at his best, he delivered what I tell my students should be the hallmark of a great story: it should not only be well written, but it should be moving, and it should be memorable.

What Arguilla teaches the young writer is that technical excellence alone is not enough. Too many writers exhibit little more than cleverness and linguistic virtuosity, with hardly any emotional impact or lasting effect. He also reminds us what a vast country we have, much larger, richer, and more complex than Starbucks, Facebook, and the Marvel and DC universe, and that a “real” writer, to use one of his favorite words, is one immersed enough in his or her society to recognize both beauty and brutality in the same place.

Franz Arcellana bemoans Arguilla’s loss to patriotism, but that too tells us something we often forget: that there are things more important than writing or literature, and country is one of them. In a war that tore through and across classes and across beliefs, Arguilla died for his country—not for literature, not for socialism, not for his class; well, maybe for Lydia, which makes him even more of a hero to me. With all due respect to my old teacher Franz, we have writers aplenty; of patriots, especially these days, we can never have enough.

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(Photo of Manuel Arguilla’s ancestral home along the National Highway in Bauang, La Union.)

Penman No. 281: The Writer in Progress

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Penman for Monday, December 11, 2017

 

(THIS IS the second of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

“Midsummer” is of course the quintessential mating story, setting the tone for the younger Arguilla’s lyrical odes to rippling muscles and shapely breasts. The man’s strength is contrasted with the girl’s slenderness, and this dichotomy would repeat itself many times over in the stories ahead: in “Heat,” where the Adonis-like Mero captivates Meliang, she of the “long and supple thighs” and whose body exudes “a healthy sweetness.” We see it again in “The Strongest Man”, where the “tall and shapely Onang” enchants Ondong, whose muscles flow under his sweating skin. Mero and Meliang, Onang and Ondong—it’s tempting to think of Arguilla falling into a mannerism, a romantic formula after Amorsolo’s or Botong’s idealized physiques.

But he quickly disabuses us of our idyllic fantasies, because the same terrain in which so much beauty resides, in both the landscape and the bodies of its fecund youth, is shown to be awash with blood and riven by violence. The second story in the collection, right after “Midsummer,” is “Morning in Nagrebcan,” and it begins with a picturesque description of rustic serenity, depicting “the fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields.” But this mood is soon shattered by the brutal killing of a puppy, and the awakening of the children to the harshness of life—indeed, to evil—in what may seem to be a bucolic paradise.

Sometimes the violence is more subtle and only hinted at. “A Son Is Born” is a long and almost anthropological account of family life and birthing rites, ending on the luminously optimistic note of a Christmas birth and a boy named Jesus, but it is shadowed by its very first line: “It was the year the locusts came and ate the young rice in the fields.” Life is difficult, but it goes on.

“How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” appears midway through the book, providing another tranquil respite, returning us to tall and lovely women meeting male approbation.

And then almost abruptly come the city stories, beginning with tales of marital stress and distress. Here I can sense the young writer and husband flexing his muscles and trying out new material and new approaches, experimenting with the kind of breathy, abstracted adoration you might find in Arcellana, acknowledging his broadening universe, with references to Picasso and Vanity Fair popping up in the prose. There’s even an attempt at comedy in “The Maid, the Man, and the Wife.” “The Long Vacation” is a melodramatic paean to loss, in the spirit of Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” but without its magic. In these so-called “marriage” stories, it is the brooding hulk of Elias, in the story of that name, that most comes alive, but this is the one story in that suite that returns to the countryside, as if to make the point that country folk can also lead terribly complicated lives and make terribly complicated decisions.

The last part of the book, which is divided into three, comprises the “socialist” stories, for want of a better description. “The Socialists,” “Epilogue to Revolt,” “Apes and Men,” and “Rice” return us to a rural setting, but this time with an explicitly political agenda, which is to awaken the reader to the inhuman exploitation of the Filipino farmer and worker of the 1930s.

“Caps and Lower Case” is often hailed as a searing indictment of labor exploitation, and indeed it pleads the case of its protagonist—a proofreader who needs the relief of just a small raise—with eloquent anguish, but ultimately it deals him a crushing defeat. “The Socialists” is a scathing satire of armchair socialism. “Epilogue to Revolt” deals with surrender and complicity, “Apes and Men” with industrial unrest, and “Rice” with hunger among the tillers.

These were all worthy subjects, of course, the stories reflecting the afterglow of the recent Sakdalista rebellion and other such uprisings in both country and city. Among writers then, the same tensions would simmer over what would be called “proletarian literature,” its standard held high by such avatars as S. P. Lopez and Arturo Rotor, and inevitably Manuel Arguilla. On the other side of the argument were ranged the likes of Jose Garcia Villa, A. E. Litiatco, and a young Nick Joaquin, who in a 1985 essay would dismiss proletarian literature as little more than that generation’s adoption of the latest American fad. It “failed to sweep the local scene,” Joaquin would chortle, “and the only writer of importance who may have been influenced by it was poor Manuel Arguilla—who got derailed.”

Arguilla’s avowals notwithstanding, however—and at the risk of committing blasphemy in the Vatican—let me opine that it would be a mistake to deify Arguilla as any kind of socialist icon. True, he embraced “proletarian literature,” but his proletarian stories are thoroughly depressing, their desperate protagonists broken and beaten, with the sole exception of “Epilogue to Revolt,” which is one of my favorites because it breaks the mold while remaining absolutely true to character and situation. His realism owes more to Charles Dickens than to Maxim Gorky.

Manuel Arguilla was, to me, very much a writer in progress—a writer still coming to terms with his material and his society, one who had explored the range of his talents and was arriving at a fusion of those extremes. Arguilla’s stories have to be read as a continuum, where country and city were beginning to come together in his artistic and political sensibilities. But then, all too soon, he died, leaving us to wonder if his stories could have taken a brighter and more hopeful turn in the postwar world he never saw.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 277: The Wealth Within Us (1)

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Penman for Monday, November 13, 2017

 

THIS ASEAN week and next, I’m sharing excerpts from a short paper I presented at a conference on ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order that took place last November 8 at the Shangri-La Makati, under the auspices of the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Asia Society. Ours was a panel on ASEAN cultural cooperation, and I spoke as a writer and academic engaged in regional networking.

As a creative writer and professor of literature, I’ve had many opportunities over these past 25 years to meet and mingle with my Southeast Asian counterparts in various conferences.

Until recently, there weren’t too many of these regional networks for writers and artists to get together, but today, some formal networks are in place. In my field, for example, the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators or APWT—which held its tenth annual conference just two weeks ago in Bali—has been very active in making connections between writers, translators, teachers, scholars, and publishers around the region. APWT goes well beyond Southeast Asia to include China, Japan, Korea, India, and even the United States and the UK, and very recently its major sponsor has been Australia, which is seeking to expand its Asian footprint.

I’m sure that similar associations exist in the other arts—in theater, music, and dance, for example. But let me use these writers’ gatherings as an illustration of the challenges and opportunities we Filipinos face on the cultural front.

Cultural cooperation presumes an awareness of each other’s culture. The problem is, there’s very little of that kind of connection, people to people, around the region, or at least between us and the rest of the region. Chalk it down to the fact that we have been separated from the rest of Southeast Asia by geography, by history, by language, and by religion. Scholars, writers, and artists—and let’s add OFWs—should of course have a deeper understanding of regional cultures, but that’s their job.

And even so, at nearly every regional conference I’ve attended, I’m acutely reminded of how out of the loop we Pinoys are—out of the Sinic loop up north, out of the Indic loop out west, out of the Malay loop down south, and out of the Commonwealth loop to which many of those countries belong. Having cast our lot with America and English, we find little in common with most everybody else, beyond the color of our skin and our shared legacy of colonialism.

Ironically, cultural commonalities and exchanges of a kind do happen around the region, and even around Asia—largely as a result of globalization, the Internet, satellite TV, and their impact on youth and pop culture. Witness the spread of K-Pop, anime, rap, telenovelas, and anything from Hollywood, especially the Marvel and DC universe.

But while these influences have arguably injected new vitality into traditional cultures and media, they have also, to a significant extent, contributed to the homogenization of those cultures, and to the forgetting or even obliteration of traditional knowledge, leaving our youth in a cultural limbo, divorced and alienated from the common experience of their own people.

Consider this: young urban Filipinos don’t consider agriculture as a career option, don’t like to eat fish unless it’s imported salmon, have no idea where or what Quiapo is, see Mindanao as another country, and know more about Japanese manga and Star Wars than they do about our heroes. Their world-view is shaped by Facebook and Netflix and spread by Twitter and Instagram, and not by direct immersion in their societies, much less by the societies around them. Indeed the fashionable thing today is to propose that the very idea of “nation” is a thing of the past, even as the rabidly resurgent nationalisms of some of our neighbors reveal that to be a precarious fantasy.

Clearly this indicates a failure of education, but as we all know, subjects related to culture and history have increasingly been relegated to the back rows of our curricular priorities in favor of science, technology, and mathematics. As a graduate myself of the Philippine Science High School and an abortive engineer and economist, I have no quarrel with pushing those competencies in the name of competitiveness and national development.

But there are also powerful arguments to be made for supporting cultural programs and endeavors instead of diminishing them. I will focus on two: what I will call the moral argument, and the economic argument.

The moral argument is that culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Cultural cooperation begins at home, first of all with an awareness of what culture is and how it can not only explain but enhance human life.

Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

Politics and economics may dominate the news and people’s consciousness, but many of our problems are cultural in nature—indeed, our politics and economics are significantly shaped by culture, from the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the conflict in Marawi.

The problem is that we often see culture as little more than entertainment, a musical interlude between presumably more important matters. Even overseas, Filipinos think of culture as the obligatory pancit and tinikling on June 12—not the underlying reason why there are hundreds of Filipino organizations in Southern California alone but few major statewide Fil-Am political leaders. (More next week)

 

Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 271: From Balagtas to Gloc-9

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Penman for Monday, October 2, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Penman for Monday, September 11, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda

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Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Photo from philstar.com]

 

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.

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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)