Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 261: High and Low in La La Land

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Penman for Monday, July 24, 2017

 

BENG AND I have been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s major art museums—the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, the Tate, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others—so I was glad for the chance to visit another great one, the Getty, in Los Angeles last week. we were on our way to visit our daughter Demi in San Diego, but decided to stop over in LA for a few days for Beng to meet up with old schoolmates and for me to finally take a longer look at La La Land. In all these years that I’ve been going to the US and passing through LAX, I’d never actually stopped in LA long enough to do the tourist thing and look up at the HOLLYWOOD sign or march down the Walk of Fame near the TCL Chinese Theater.

So when the chance presented itself through Beng’s friend Rose, we dropped off our bags at Rose’s place in West Covina and rode out to do some sightseeing—but first, of the highbrow kind. The Getty and the newer Broad Museum have been on my to-do list, but we had time this time for just the Getty—and I would quickly realize that “just the Getty” was the silliest thing to say.

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“The J. Paul Getty Museum” is actually two places in LA all at once—the Getty Center, a complex on a hilltop in the Brentwood area, and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which houses the Getty’s Greek, Roman, and Etruscan collections.

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But before we go any further, a word on the benefactor of these palaces of art, Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976), once the world’s richest man, thanks to his daring and foresight in buying a 60-year lease on Saudi oil. Despite his fabulous wealth, he was notoriously stingy, reportedly begrudging his fifth wife the medical expenses for their son who later died, and installing a pay phone at his English villa. When his grandson and namesake JP III was kidnapped in 1973, he dickered and paid only as much ransom as could be tax-deductible, and gave the rest as a loan to his son.

How such miserly men join the ranks of the world’s greatest philanthropists will remain a mystery for psychologists to plumb, but I’ll take it as a form of restitution. Getty had the villa, which fronts his home, built in the early 1970s to house his overflowing collection, but ironically he never saw it, dying in England. The Center, about a 20-minute drive down the beach and reachable by a funicular tram, opened in 1997. Remarkably, entrance to both venues is free; you just have to pay for the parking.

While I prefer modern art—from the utter simplicity of a fish by Brancusi or the melancholy of Hopper’s “Nighthawks”—I never fail to be awed and amazed by the workmanship and luminosity of the earlier masters. The Getty Center’s exhibits of Renaissance and Neoclassical art did not fail to impress. Most stunning of all for me was the work of an artist I’d never even heard of—Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755-1821), whose A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posilippo, a monumental landscape with an equally kilometric name, displays an uncanny awareness of both the largeness and the smallness of things. True to her art-restorer self, Beng came to within half an inch of many masterpieces, scrutinizing the restorer’s technique, until the guard had to shoo her away.

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The villa, on the other hand, was as much to be visited as an artwork in itself as the pieces it contained. I was mesmerized by the beauty and delicacy of Roman glass, and by the almost contemporary pixilation of the mosaics, but like Mt. Vesuvius towering over Herculaneum—the villa’s inspiration—Getty’s shadow hovered over everything. Not surprisingly, he’s buried somewhere on the premises.

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We left LA for San Diego the next day, but not before indulging my small wish to cruise down Hollywood Boulevard for an encounter with the stars—at least those at one’s feet. While we never got to meet the likes of Gal Gadot or Emma Stone (not even Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson), we did spot several Spider-Men and lesser icons strutting on the street, ever ready for the next selfie. I had the feeling that I was going to meet a galaxy of these superheroes in San Diego, where Comic-con was due to open in a few days. (And with any luck I hope to be able to report on and from that event next week, as I did last year.)

 My readers will understand if I admit that, back in Hollywood, I planted my feet on the star of a reality-TV host named Donald Trump; it was, after all, a sidewalk, with all the stars meant to be stepped on—some, perhaps, more so than others.

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(Photo of J. Paul Getty from Celebrity Net Worth; Lusieri painting from Wikimedia.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

Penman No. 259: A Showcase of Cordillera Culture

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Penman for Monday, July 10, 2017

 

I WENT up to Baguio a couple of weeks ago to give the commencement address before the Class of 2017 of the University of the Philippines-Baguio (UPB), and began my talk by reminiscing how, as a young boy, “I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim ‘student power,’ pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.”

You can find the rest of that speech on my blog at http://www.penmanila.ph—it seems to have acquired a life of its own—but the real highlight of my Baguio sojourn turned out to be a visit to the new Museo Kordilyera on the UPB campus along Gov. Pack Road.

UPB, you have to realize, is unique among UP’s campuses in that it sprawls all over a hilltop, so that anything you build on it has to adapt to its challenging topography. When you think of what the builders of the Rice Terraces had to do, you get an idea of how creative and adaptive UPB’s architects have had to be to maximize the use of its property, keeping aesthetics in mind as well as safety, in this earthquake-troubled city.

UPB Chancellor Ray Rovillos, himself a historian and one of UP’s most capable administrators, had offered to take us on a personal tour of the new museum the day after graduation, and Beng and I happily took him up on it. The three-level Museo looks little more than a glass box with a few exhibits at ground level, but it’s when you take the stairs going underground that your jaw falls at seeing what UPB’s combination of careful scholarship, administrative commitment, and sheer perseverance has produced.

Formally opened last January under the administration of then UP President Fred Pascual, the museum draws on the curatorial work undertaken by Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino, Jr., Prof. Victoria Diaz, archivist Cristina Villanueva and museum director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores.

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What immediately catches the eye, of course, are the life-size representations of various indigenous people in full tribal dress and gear—so accurately researched, Ikin would tell us, that some people in the community didn’t even know their ancestors had worn them. Going over the intricate weaves and beadwork, Beng and I exchanged stories with Ikin about similar objects we had seen deep in the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum. While part of the museum’s mission is the visual showcase for the public, an equally important aspect is the scholarly research it hopes to engender. Century-old artifacts are kept in cabinets, yet to be studied, and donations from collectors are welcome to deepen the museum’s holdings.

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A Ford Foundation scholar at Oxford University, Ikin had published a landmark study titled Tattooing Ink, Tapping Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society, North Luzon, Philippines (Quezon City: UP Press, 2013), the culmination of a long fascination with the practice and origins of tattooing that began with an encounter with an old woman in Baguio’s market almost 30 years ago.

A corner of the museum is devoted to books published by the UP Press and by the Cordillera Studies Center, which has established itself as the most important source of expertise in its area. Prominently displayed are the three excellently written and produced monographs that accompanied the launch and opening exhibits of the Museo Kordilyera: Batok (Tattoos): Body as Archive by Analyn Salvador-Amores; The Indigenous, In Flux: Reconfiguring the Ethnographic Photograph by Roland Rabang; and Jules De Raedt: Life Works, Lived Worlds by Victoria Lourdes C. Diaz. Anyone wanting deeper insights into the ways of the highlands would do well to consult June Prill-Brett’s Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture (Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, 2015).

Worthy of commendation for the museum’s modern but welcoming design is Architect Aris Go and the 90 Design Studio team that has been helping Chancellor Rovillos and UPB make the most of their limited space—a service Aris has also extended to UPB’s new and handsome Science Research Center, another fine example of environmentally adaptive architecture.

The UPB people were eagerly awaiting the visit of one of the country’s most fervent advocates of indigenous culture and arts, Sen. Loren Legarda, which was planned for mid-July. Knowing the senator’s passion for all things Filipino, I urged Ikin and Chancellor Ray to secure further support from her for the museum and its adjoining auditorium, which will host many conferences on indigenous culture in the years to come.

Besides the ube jam and peanut brittle at Good Shepherd—and, of course, the splendid art exhibits and architecture to be found in the Bencab Museum on Asin Road (Bencab has donated some of his most important pieces to the UPB museum)—Baguio visitors now have another must-see stop on their itinerary. The Museo Kordilyera is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am-5 pm for a nominal entrance fee. For more information, check out its Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/upbmuseokordilyera/.

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Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

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Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN nearly 20 years since I received the news that I had won the biggest writing grant of my life. I was 45 and raring to work on my second novel, and had a germ of an idea, suggested by the sad parade of caskets that arrived almost daily at Manila’s international airport. I knew that our overseas workers and their experience was the big story of that period, but I needed time away from teaching to get started on the project, so I applied for a new grant that was being offered at the University of East Anglia in the UK for what was described then as “a novel of Asia.”

The UEA website describes that fellowship thus: “The David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship is a unique and generous annual award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about the Far East to spend a year in the UK, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Fellowship is named for its sponsor Mr. David Wong, a retired Hong Kong businessman who has also been a teacher, journalist and senior civil servant, and is a writer of fiction. The Fellowship was launched in 1997 and the first Fellow appointed from 1st October 1998.” (Collections of short stories are now accepted in lieu of the novel. The UEA and its writing program are acknowledged to be the leader in the field in the UK, with Booker Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Anne Enright among their distinguished alumni.)

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I honestly can’t remember now how I chanced upon the Wong Fellowship—these were the early days of the Internet in the Philippines, when modems screeched like mating cats before connecting over phone lines—but Beng and I soon packed our bags for the privilege of a lifetime. It would take a few more years, but that idyllic journey eventually gave birth to Soledad’s Sister, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and published in 2008. I was only the second Wong Fellow, and after me, in 2003, another Filipino followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy, now based in Denmark, whose novel Sweet Haven also began taking shape in Norwich.

Last month came the terrific news that yet another Filipino, Nathaniel Go, had been named the new David T. K. Wong Fellow, besting dozens of other applicants from around the world. I was so elated by the news that I sought out Nathan, as he prefers to be called, by email, and got this story from him:

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“I was born and grew up in Davao City. This is quite a statement to make nowadays as Davao has suddenly received a lot of attention. But back then, I remember a quiet and laid-back existence, highlighted every summer with the sickly sweet smell of mangoes, as our neighbor who owned a farm, would bring in basket after basket from their harvest. When it rained, water buffaloes would sometimes stop traffic outside our house by bathing in the large potholes filled with mud. The best thing to have come out of such a childhood, of course, is my love of books. Our bookshelf was quite small and included such juvenilia as the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Choose Your Own Adventure was also a hit back then. The Bible was a staple. Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the gold standard. Eventually, once I developed a taste for books I quickly sought new titles from our school library.”

Nathan was a voracious reader, so much so that his school librarian once dared him to bring a truck to borrow the whole collection. He left home at 16 and went to Ateneo de Manila, but moved to the US shortly after to join his siblings in California, where he finally got to study what he had always wanted—literature, linguistics, political science, and screenwriting. He worked briefly as a paralegal before giving in to his muse and studying fiction at the University of Michigan and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Nathan has taught creative writing at the Braille Institute. He will be working on his first novel in Norwich. But as far as he’s come in the world, Nathan still writes about the Philippines and still considers it his home.

“I go back every now and then and I’m always surprised by how fast things are changing, but how—underneath the changes—the fundamental things remain the same,” he says. “These fundamental things are hard to articulate, but I guess that’s where my stories come in. As an author, I straddle an identity and the space between a true insider and outsider of the Philippines. I write about Davao and I write about the small Filipino Chinese community there that I belong to, because that’s the kind of stories I’d never read while growing up.”

Three Filipino fellows in 19 years is surely worth cheering about, but I can’t help thinking—having seen the talent out here—that we (and other homegrown Southeast Asians) could be sending more fictionists to Norwich, and Nathan’s triumph is a welcome reminder of that wonderful possibility. For more information about the David T. K. Wong Fellowship, look here: https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship.

(Pictured on top are the Wong Fellows at a reunion with David T. K. Wong in London, 2008. Image of Nathan Go courtesy of UEA.)

Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

Zarcal

Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

LadyPilots

Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

LadyMechs

Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

Penman No. 239: A Pinoy Pangalay in Hyderabad

hyderabad-literary-festival-venue

Penman for Monday, February 20, 2017

 

 

I’M GOING to turn over most of my column this week to a colleague at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, the playwright and essayist Luna Sicat Cleto, whom I commissioned (badgered is the more appropriate word, since I’m not paying her anything more than my deepest thanks) to do a report on a recent mission that she and a group of Filipino writers undertook in Hyderabad, India.

The original invitation to attend the Hyderabad International Literary Festival and organize a delegation as a “guest nation” had been sent to me, but since I couldn’t work it into my schedule, I asked performance poet and Philippine High School for the Arts director Vim Nadera to put together and lead a troupe of Filipino writers and artists. And what a delegation it turned out to be. With Vim went fellow writers Jun Cruz Reyes, Victor Sugbo, Luna Sicat Cleto, Jeena Rani Marquez, Christine Godinez Ortega, Hope Sabanpan-Yu, and Neila Balgoa. Spoken word poet Kooky Tuason also came along, as did Ifugao poet Dumay Solinggay. Dance and music were represented by Cecilia Artates and Marty Tengco. Let’s hear the rest from Luna:

“According to Dr. T. Vijay Kumar, Professor of English at Osmania University in Hyderabad, the Philippine delegation was the biggest group they had received so far, having hosted five nations since it began in 2010. The other four were Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, and Singapore.

“Dr. Kumar, alongside the novelist Pranesh Prasad, had encouraged the attendance of the Filipino writers. Prasad graced the Iligan workshop in 2013 as guest writer and also attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Manila in 2015.

Since then he has felt a strong affinity with Filipinos. Prasad was happy with the performance of the delegation, saying that ‘I think we achieved our goal of creating awareness about Philippines in India, given the number of newspapers that covered your participation and all the people contact that has resulted. It bodes well for India-Philippines cultural relations.’

“Prasad’s observation was echoed by Jun Cruz Reyes, who felt that it was refreshing to read about the convergence of so many talents and minds in the festival, which was not limited to the literary field alone. Topics as diverse as politics, history, sports, and popular culture were taken up in parallel sessions. While some German industrial designers discussed the sustainable technology of chai shops, a Mumbai-based young entrepreneur talked about Instagram ruminations, while another focused on the Indian graphic novel. There were talks given by poet laureates Ashok Payjevi alongside investigative journalists like Josy Joseph and Harsh Mander, and discussions of translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Tamil stories alongside debates about the effects of the partition and human trafficking. Particiapns got to see martial-arts demonstrations of the shilambam as well as India’s latest art films. The plurality of HILF is based on its inclusive ethos: it is multilingual and multidisciplinary, and the multiple speakers—writers, artists, scholars, filmmakers, journalists, publishers—represent a wide range of creative fields. Hyderabad has been described as a ‘teeming urban masala of color and commerce,’ and indeed the city evokes the ancient prosperity of its Mughal past, alongside its twin reputation as a Silicon Valley of India.”

Luna adds that “Indeed, it is fortuitous that the Philippines was invited now, while both countries are assessing their relative positions in the global literary and cultural scene. It also became a chance to rediscover the bonds between India and the Philippines, evident in the many words from Sanskrit that are in the Filipino’s vocabulary: budhi, guro, and diwata, among others. While India has a strong tradition of writing in English because of the colonial legacy of British education, the Philippines also has a strong contingent of Filipino writers in English. India’s raucous democratic plurality in religion and politics is echoed in the Philippines’ plurality of religion, politics, cultural traditions and languages. The many languages of India are celebrated in the Hyderabad International Literary Festival, and for this year, its focus was on the Tamil language. One artist, the great Indian dancer Leela Samson, who performed in ‘Past Forward,’ said that it is about time that India listened to its many voices, and let the major languages of India be the conduits of thoughts and ideas.

“Samson’s sentiments were echoed in the Philippine delegation’s performance, aptly titled ‘Philippine Pangalay: Karmic Harvest.’ Vim Nadera strutted onstage, dressed in an all-white suit complete with an American flag tie. Channeling Donald Trump and the doomsday rhetoric of born-again speakers, he pronounced that he was dedicating his performance to the memory of National Artist Francisco Arcellana. ‘Close all open things, Lord/Open all closed things,’ Nadera intoned, appropriating Elvis’ crotch choreos with riffs from the musical Hair. The crowd was energized. He then introduced Jeena Marquez, who performed a powerful dramatic monologue based on Rizal’s epilogue in El Filibusterismo, a re-enactment of Maria Clara’s leap to death as witnessed by two civilians. Romancing Venus was the next act, which featured Tuason’s slapshock verbal performance, enhanced by Tengco’s drumming and Artate’s pangalay. But the real star of the delegation was Dumay Solinggay, who channeled the anguish of epic chanters with her poignant chorus of  ‘We must remember, we must remember…’ Solinggay did not only echo the trauma of the postcolonial subject, who may feel trapped in identities and names arbitrarily assigned, in specific situations like the call-center agents or the inevitable loss of memory in the fast pace of urban life. When she danced at the last part of her ensemble, her body resembled the paroxysm of the chanters in a trance.”

What can I say? I wish I’d been there with them in Hyderabad. The name alone sounds like magic, and I’m sure the place and the experience were every bit just that.

philippine-delegation-with-ambassador-daza-from-hope-yu

(Photos by Jeena Marquez and Hope Yu)