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. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Penman No. 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.