Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel  Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he  would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at  our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer   in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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Penman No. 294: From Bach to Baleh

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Penman for Monday, March 19, 2018

 

SOMETIME LAST year, I reported on the opening of the new Museo Kordilyera at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), and predicted that it was going to become one of the new “must-sees” for the culturally savvy Baguio visitor, alongside such landmarks as the Bencab Museum. I was back there last week to help inaugurate a new theater and enjoy a concert—about which you’ll hear more in a bit—but what sealed UPB’s reputation for me as that region’s cultural beacon was its new exhibit titled “Feasts of Merit” which opened last month and which will run all year long.

As UPB Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino explains it, the title refers to the “prestige feasts” sponsored by the well-off families of traditional societies around Asia and in the Philippine north, such as by the Ifugao, Bontok, and Ibaloy. In these feasts—now long gone, for obvious reasons—hundreds of pigs and carabaos would be slaughtered in a show of affluence—indeed, in what could be seen as a deliberate exercise in excess, as Museo director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores acknowledges. But alongside this excess was the idea that wealth was meaningless if it could not be shared with others, so the point of the feast was to have the community partake of it, thereby strengthening the ties between and among the people.

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To liven up the scene, the Museo purchased (with sponsorships), dismantled, transported, and reassembled a complete traditional Ifugao house or baleh which now forms the centerpiece of the exhibit. The 50-year-old house took four days to put back together, says Ikin, employing no nails. Walking around and beneath it gives the visitor an intimate sense of family and village life—as well as of the ingenuity of the native architect, in such touches as the rat guards circling every post, preventing rodents and other pests from clambering up into the house proper.

The baleh may be the most arresting feature of the exhibit, but equally fascinating are the large-scale reproductions of vintage photographs lining the walls, chronicling a lost way of life in the highlands, from Bontok women threshing rice together to other women wearing golden mouth guards to display their wealth (or, as one of those women said, “to shut us up” because the men wore no such flashy encumbrances).

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An especially fascinating corner of the museum houses its impressive collection of heirloom textiles, many sporting designs unseen and unwoven for many decades. As two of her assistants carefully folded and scanned some specimens to create digital files of their designs, Ikin unrolled a large swath of an indigo-dyed textile from the 1920s—still looking new and sharp—that she had found in Chicago, being sold by a Filipino, whom she had managed to persuade to sell the precious artifact.

Foreign sponsors and benefactors such as the Newberry Library in Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia helped make the exhibit possible; local supporters like the National Artist Bencab have also generously lent or donated items from their extensive collections. Dr. Amores says the Museo would be very happy to receive more donations of choice items from private collections, and I can’t think of a more fitting recipient myself of such pieces than the Museo Kordilyera and its state-of-the-art facilities and curatorial services.

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The Museo and its exhibits are part of a broader UPB program to revitalize its campus as a regional center for cultural awareness and research under Chancellor Ray Rovillos, who also happens to be a historian. With just a six-hectare footprint and a steeply sloping landscape to work with, Dr. Rovillos and his architect, the brilliantly adaptive Aris Go, have given UPB a smart new environment that goes beyond looks to include catchments for rainwater, among other innovations.

Thanks to the support of the cultural maven Sen. Loren Legarda, UPB also now has an impressive new theater, the Teatro Amianan, which was inaugurated last week with a concert, and the adjoining Darnay Demetillo Art Space.

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The concert opened with some popular numbers by UPB’s homegrown Tinig Amianan, after which the audience was treated to a stellar performance by soprano Stephanie Quintin, a Baguio girl and UP graduate who has trained in Germany and Hong Kong. Stephanie presented a selection of vocal classics from Bach to Lizst and Gounod before wowing the crowd with Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” and a rousing rendition of Jose Estella’s “Ang Maya.” She was very capably accompanied by the young pianist Gabriel Paguirigan, who’s still in school at the UP College of Music after graduating from the Philippine High School for the Arts, but who has already won a slew of awards.

It may be quite a stretch from Bach to the baleh, but it’s precisely the kind of imaginative leap from the tribal to the global that Baguio has always been known for, and as a UP official myself, I felt immensely proud to see UPB on top of the effort. Bravo!

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Penman No. 290: My Cabinet of Curiosities

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Penman for Monday, February 12, 2018

 

HISTORY TELLS us that museums began as private collections of odds and ends—Wunderkammer or “rooms of wonder” in German, later to be known as “cabinets of curiosities”—where wealthy Europeans of the 16th century amassed objects from all around the world for the amazement and delectation of their friends. Those objects ranged from stuffed crocodiles and “unicorn” (narwhal) horns to Roman coins, clockwork globes, and such vestiges of defeated empires as the feather crown of the Aztec Montezuma (now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology).

Kept and shown in—yes—cabinets (although originally “cabinets” could also mean whole rooms), these collections formed the basis for what later became full-scale and more specialized museums. Those museums are what Beng and I make a beeline for every time we land on foreign territory, eager for the chance to see wondrous objects from the past with our own eyes. Topping that list would be perennials like the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Field Museum, and the New York City Public Library—for which one lifetime seems inadequate to appreciate in their entirety—as well as art palaces such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, and the Getty.

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For reasons we can only guess at, the routing in those places almost always ends at the gift shop, where you can pick up a pewter Colosseum or a Vincent van Gogh fridge magnet (both made, of course, in China) to remember your visit by.

My urges, however, have gone in another direction: instead of spending $24.99 on a fake Lindbergh cap at the Air and Space Museum, I’d rather spend it on a book on early aviation or on a 1927 newspaper marking the historic trans-Atlantic flight. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the real thing can be, compared to the mock memento.

Given that mindset—and the fact that I’ve had more than 30 years of collecting old fountain pens, watches, and other men’s junk behind me—it’s no surprise that I’ve cobbled together my own cabinet of curiosities at home, representing half a lifetime of picking rubbish off the street. Some people would call me a pack rat, for keeping Love Bus tickets ca. 1978 or real plane tickets from back when they used red carbon paper for the passenger coupons.

Lately I’ve been prowling eBay for fine old books, but I get as much pleasure finding treasure in a Cavite junkyard as I do securing a 130-year-old travel book in French online (you’ll see both below).

I’ll leave it for Beng and Demi to sort everything out when I myself become a candidate for taxidermy, but here’s a sampler of what a visitor to my mini-museum will find:

  1. A man’s black umbrella with a classic bent-bamboo handle, found for P120 in a Japanese surplus store in Bacoor. Beng rhapsodizes over the ceramics in these stores, and rightly so, but I’ve been strangely attracted to wooden umbrellas, clocks, and boxes;
  2. A silver “Dos Mundos” coin from 1771, big and fat, from my home island of Tablas in Romblon, reputed to be a pirate haven in Spanish times.
  3. A gold-tinted medallion given out to luminaries and guests at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1946, the kind gift of a dear family friend, whose father was one of those guests;
  4. A Form 5 (at it was already called then) that a student registered with at the University of the Philippines in the 1930s, accompanied by a booklet of course offerings for that time.
  5. A 900-page travel book, published in Paris in 1878, with 360 beautiful engravings of scenes from Australia, Java, Japan, and China, sourced from Funchal in Portugal;
  6. A gold Hamilton railroad watch from around 1925, large and bright, so-called because railroads required precise timekeeping down to the exact second to avoid collisions, and such watches were synchronized by telegraphy;
  7. The original iPhone from 2007 (of which I must sheepishly admit I have three, two of which still function perfectly), which I predict will be tomorrow’s great collectible (alongside my EasyCall pager, which still glows when turned on, a near-mint BlackBerry, and four Palm PDAs);
  8. A copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from November 1773—no, not an early version of Playboy or Penthouse, but the very first publication to call itself a magazine, or a collection of general-interest articles, including the title story on “The Frugal Housewife, wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands with cleanliness, decency, and elegance, is explained….”; and
  9. An array of French-made 19th-century toothbrushes with bone handles and boar bristles.

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I could go on and on—but it only gets worse (or more fascinating, if you like extracted teeth, gallstones, and other wonders of the natural world). Don’t be shy, come on in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 289: PowerPeeves

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Penman for Monday, February 5, 2018

 

I’VE NEVER used PowerPoint in my life as much as I had to this past year, largely because I’ve been asked to do many presentations—briefings, TEDTalks, and such. For the longest time, I’d resisted using PowerPoint (and its Mac counterpart, Keynote), not because I dislike visual aids, but because I felt confident that I could get my message across just by having people listen to my words and my voice.

That works—sometimes. I feel that when I’m talking to persuade—like when I spoke at the annual conference of the Writers Union of the Philippines to argue for the need to give evil a human face, or when I exhorted young writers at the Palancas to remember to write for oneself after writing for others—then direct address works better, without props or pictures.

After more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve long lost whatever shyness I may have had about public speaking—a teacher has no better tool in a classroom than his or her voice—but that doesn’t mean talking comes naturally, especially if you have to make sense. In the ten minutes or so before every class, walking down the corridor or up to my floor, I rehearse the lines I’ll be opening with, the points I have to make. It does get easier with time and practice, but every class is a performance, every audience a fresh challenge.

Perhaps it helped that, in our elementary years, we had a subject called Declamation which forced us to memorize and recite long, elaborate poems and speeches like Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe” and Mark Antony’s lament at Caesar’s funeral. We may not have understood what we were emoting about with full juvenile fervor, but—at least for me—it got rid of the stage fright, and I marveled at the fact that, if you spoke well and clearly, people listened.

Of course that was something that politicians already knew. They could whip the masses up into a maniacal frenzy—just with words. No flash cards, no graphs and charts, and yes, no PowerPoint. Not for Hitler, not for Marcos, not for… well, most other demagogues you can think of, some orange-haired presidents included. They knew that nothing could mobilize people better than fear, and nothing could stoke fear better than the imagination, such as of alien hordes and drug-crazed zombies streaming over the border. (On the other hand, the good guys could raise the dead as well with eloquently simple but moving oratory—think of Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of 1940, which drew on similar remarks made much earlier by Theodore Roosevelt, not always a good guy.)

It’s tempting to suggest that if Churchill et al. had to use PowerPoint to rally the troops, the Battle of Britain would have been lost as he fidgeted, as presenters often do, with the controls and clicked back and forth between slides of Spitfires, Hurricanes, Heinkels, and Dorniers and rattled off their ranges and payloads. If Genghis Khan had to sit for a PowerPoint presentation on the economic and tourism potentials of every new territory over the horizon before he actually shouted “Advance! Kill! Plunder!”, he would never have gone past the Yellow River.

But of course today very little can happen without someone first having to plunk down a laptop, connect a medley of cables and wires, tinker with screen and clicker, and run through a cascade of slides in a coma-inducing monotone.

But I’ll admit it: there’s nothing like PowerPoint when people need to see what you’re talking about, whether it’s the tomb of Tamerlane in Samarkand, a genetically modified eggplant, or a fountain pen Jose Rizal would have written with. It’s most useful in speeches and lectures meant to inform, providing visual reinforcement for such abstract (and, these days, politically unfashionable) concepts as “human rights,” “freedom of the press,” and “territorial integrity.”

I remember being fascinated by scenes from the Bible that our Religion teacher in grade school flipped through in a roll of posters, and I’m sure we’ll all agree that the impact images produce is visceral.

That said, let me rattle off some of my pet peeves when it comes to PowerPoint presentations:

  1. Slides full of long text, which the presenters then read word for word, line by line. For heaven’s sake, summarize, condense, get to the core of things!
  2. Presenters who mumble like they were confessing their sins.
  3. Slides of cute babies, puppies, kittens, and sunsets when you’re talking about sexual harassment, Bentham Rise, or global warming.
  4. Whoosh! Swirl! Zoom! Dazzling and dizzying transitions and visual effects, accompanied by a fruit salad of colors and a library of exotic fonts.
  5. And, of course, presentations that just go on and on and on, because the presenters never bothered to do a dry run, edit their draft, or look at the clock and all the bored faces.

All yours, Genghis!

 

(Image from makeuseof.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 288: From Quiapo to Norwich

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Penman for Monday, January 29, 2018

 

IT’S A strange title, I know, but it’s all I could come up with to highlight the two topics I’m taking up this week. They’re not actually connected—at least not yet—but they were much on my mind as I dusted off my texts for a new semester of teaching at UP (all for naught, as it turned out, as my graduate writing class was dissolved for lack of students—to my secret relief).

“Quiapo” is at the core of Quiapography, a digital-humanities project designed and led last semester by Dr. Patricia May Jurilla. Normally our resident expert on the history of books and publishing—one of those rare nerds who shares my strange attraction to Gothic blackletter and to the aroma of centuries-old paper—May branched out not only into a new subject but also a new approach to teaching and learning under the rubric of “digital humanities.”

Or maybe not that new. I asked Dr. Jurilla to explain the concept to me, and I was told that “Digital humanities has been in practice for over twenty years now. It’s emerged as a discipline itself with its own league of practitioners, dedicated book series and journals, circuit of conferences and events, degree programs, and new job opportunities in the tight academic market.”

Better than any explanation is the product itself of her PhD students’ semester, during which May directed them in a digital exploration and presentation of that most quintessentially Pinoy of urban spaces, Quiapo. That can be seen on the Quiapographywebsite at https://updigitalhumanities.wixsite.com/quiapography, “a virtual museum designed to document and map the culture of Quiapo in order to celebrate, re-view, and rediscover its heritage and its importance in Philippine history and society.”

Aside from the familiar photographs of and stories about Quiapo Church, amulet vendors, and the Black Nazarene, the site contains useful resources such as a list of literary works about Quiapo, pieces on the district’s fortune tellers, camera shops, and historical heritage, and photo galleries of just about everything.

Myself, I wish that I’d known about the project earlier, as I would’ve had my own Quiapo stories to contribute, as central as the place was to my young life—from my memories of descending for the first time into its brand-new underpass (something straight out of a sci-fi fantasy to a ten-year-old) to marching at Plaza Miranda with fist raised as a teenage Maoist and buying Christmas ham on Echague as a family man.

For those who’ve never strayed into this crucible of Filipino-ness (and sadly, in today’s mall-oriented culture, that would be millions of Pinoy millennials), Quiapographyshould provide a perfect introduction.

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And now a quick cut to Norwich, some 10,600 kilometers away from Quiapo in southeastern England. For nine months between 1999 and 2000, this city became home for me and Beng when I took up residency there as the David T. K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia. It was a restful but also fruitful stay that led to what became my second novel, Soledad’s Sister.

To put it simply, UEA is the most vibrant center of creative writing in the UK. Its community of writers was founded by Sir Angus Wilson and Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970, and its graduates have included the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Rose Tremain. (Among the privileges of being there was having books signed by future Nobel prizewinners J. M. Coetzee and Ishiguro.)

Every year, UEA invites a writer to stay and write there—no teaching, no research, no lectures, just writing and relaxation—at its expense, or rather that of a sponsor named David T. K. Wong. A former journalist, civil servant, and businessman from Hong Kong who also writes fiction, Mr. Wong did well enough in life to endow the generous fellowship, an award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about Asia.

I was the second Wong Fellow, and over the 20 years since the fellowship’s inception in 1998, two other Filipinos have followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy in 2003, and the current fellow, the Davao-born but US-based Nathan Go.

This brings me to my pitch: if you think you have a great novel or collection of stories welling in you—and you’d like to finish it in England, looking out on a lagoon full of graceful swans—please apply for the next Wong Fellowship, like I dared to do two decades ago. All you basically need, aside from the forms and the £10 application fee, is a 2,500-word excerpt from your proposed fiction project. The deadline for applications is February 28. For forms and more information, go here:https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship. Good luck!

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 286: Bringing Science to the People

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Penman for Monday, January 15, 2018

 

JUST BEFORE the Christmas break, I had a chance to speak to three different groups—the local media in Iloilo, the Philippine Genome Center in UP, and the Philippine Information Agency—about popularizing technical information, of the kind produced by academic and government institutions, especially in their research.

This has been one of my lifelong advocacies, being a frustrated scientist who, as a PSHS graduate, traded Industrial Engineering for English at UP. I figured that the next best thing I could do for science was to help scientists let people know about their work, given that, as I often point out, we lack a scientific culture—a rationalist mindset—in this country.

I told them that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Bringing science into the national discourse becomes even more important when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

That’s why we have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also enabling destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation. In other words, it’s a guide to making choices.

A few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Baños tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from the scientific community, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now?

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in this country. Some may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the activists, the bankers, and the generals, or should we rely on science to establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

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(Photos from http://www.up.edu.ph)

Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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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.)