Penman No. 258: A Boost for Art Education

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Penman for Monday, July 3, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

So, what do I think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 253: Wealth You Can’t Buy

IMG_1773Penman for Monday June 5, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

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Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

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Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 240: Cebu Goes MAAAD

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Penman for Monday, February 27, 2017

 

 

THAT’S MAAAD as in “Master of Arts in Applied Arts and Design,” a new degree program recently launched by the University of the Philippines Cebu in collaboration with Taiwan’s Shu Te University (STU).

And what’s the big deal about this new offering? Well, it taps into one of Cebu’s native strengths—its deep roots in artistic expression, coupled with cutting-edge technology—while bringing Cebu in direct contact with leading global knowledge centers like STU.

Cebu, of course, isn’t just one of the country’s major economic and political capitals. It’s also home to rich cultural traditions in painting, literature, music, dance, theater, and film, among other genres. It’s no surprise that it gave birth to a world-class talent like furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue, who graced the launch of the MAAAD program along with Cebu City Mayor Tomas R. Osmeña, UP President Danilo L. Concepcion, UP Cebu Chancellor Liza D. Corro, and CCAD Acting Dean Jocelyn Pinzon. STU was represented by its former President Dr. Chu Yuan Hsiang and Dr. Eing Ming Wu, among others.

The cooperation between UP Cebu and STU is no accident. Cebu and Kaohsiung are sister cities, an unusually strong relationship made visible by the proliferation of modern “Kaohsiung” buses in Cebu. It implements the Taiwan-Philippines Academic Networking Platform which was forged in May last year between UP and the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, following a visit to Kaohsiung by a UP team led by then President Alfredo E. Pascual and UP Open University Chancellor Grace Javier Alfonso.

“We in Taiwan have usually focused on Western countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, neglecting an English-speaking country much closer to Taiwan, the Philippines,” noted the ebullient Dr. Wu, who would email me upon his return to Kaohsiung to report that “I am overwhelmed by the new momentum created by our partnership. At this moment, ten UP Cebu students plus one chaperone have arrived to visit physiology labs in three different distinguished universities. They will be staying at the UP Guest House in Kindness Hotel, a facility we set up to host our Filipino visitors. Another batch of six UP Diliman faculty members will be in Kaohsiung to seek matches with Southern Taiwan universities for their PhD degrees from February 28 to March 3.”

UP Cebu is uniquely positioned at the nexus of tradition and innovation. It’s the UP System’s eighth and newest constituent university, but it will be celebrating its centennial as an educational institution next year. The age shows in the old college building along Gorordo Avenue, but don’t let the antique charm fool you—a laser cutter and 3D printer are busy at work in another wing next door. For its part, and although relatively young, STU has already won prestigious international awards for its students’ work in communications and design, including the iF Student Design Award in 2016.

The new MAAAD program promises to be both challenging and rewarding. To be administered by UP Cebu’s College of Communication, Art, and Design (CCAD), the 36-unit, four-semester program will cover courses in research, digital content design, product design, fabric design, technology, and art, among others. Classes will be taught by instructors from STU at UP Cebu’s new campus at the South Road Project—a huge reclamation area that promises to be the city’s new boomtown—but students will defend their theses and receive their diplomas at STU in Kaohsiung. (Mayor Osmeña had made the five-hectare SRP lot available to UP.)

MAAAD faculty and students can bank on laboratories and facilities comprising UP Cebu’s FabLab (put up with DTI support), fine arts workshops, and the CCAD’s computer laboratory. It won’t be cheap, with tuition running at nearly P60,000 per semester, but a scholarship scheme is being discussed. Besides, explains Chancellor Corro, “We expect many of our students to be working professionals for whom the program will present expanded opportunities for further growth.”

In his remarks, Kenneth Cobonpue made a wry reference to the fact that UP turned him down years ago when he applied to its Fine Arts program after failing his drawing exam. He later found his true calling in industrial design. The MAAAD program should now make sure that no design geniuses are turned away at the door, ever again. For more information, email maaad.upcebu@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is July 15.

 

ON BEHALF of my old office, the UP Institute of Creative of Writing (UPICW), I’m also glad to announce the fellows to the 56th UP National Writers Workshop to be held on March 12-19, 2017 at the BP International Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna. Twelve writers have been selected for the workshop, to be led by this year’s workshop director Vladimeir Gonzales.

The 2017 fellows are Arbeen Acuña (Fiction, Filipino), Christa de la Cruz (Poetry, Filipino), Zeno Denolo (Fiction, Filipino), Rowena Festin (Fiction, Filipino), Rogene Gonzales (Fiction, Filipino), Arvin Mangohig (Poetry, English), Arnie Mejia (Creative Nonfiction, English), Paolo Enrico Melendez (Creative Nonfiction, English), Charisse-Fuschia Paderna (Poetry, English), Wilfredo Pascual (Creative Nonfiction, English), Karren Renz Seña (Fiction, English), and Alvin Ursua (Poetry, Filipino).

See you all next month in Los Baños!

 

SPEAKING OF Cebuano artists and writers, I was very sad to hear about the passing after a long illness of a colleague and friend—and one of UP’s and Cebu’s most outstanding art scholars and critics—Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete. Reuben was also one of the stalwarts of the Erehwon Center for the Arts, and we went to the US together last July on Erehwon’s behalf to pitch hard for the establishment of the American Museum of Philippine Art. More than that, he had been one of my daughter Demi’s favorite teachers when she was an Art Studies major, and my wife Beng was a dear friend of his to the last. Reuben left an indelible impression on everyone he met with his prodigious knowledge, his acerbic wit, and his passion for books and learning. Godspeed, Reuben, and see you in that great gallery in the sky!

 

 

Penman No. 239: A Pinoy Pangalay in Hyderabad

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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.

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(Photos by Jeena Marquez and Hope Yu)

Penman No. 238: A Little Carillon Music

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Penman for Monday, February 13, 2017

 

 

IT’S BEEN a bit nippy these past few mornings on the campus of UP Diliman, where I’ve not only taught for the past 33 years but where we’ve also lived for almost 14 years now, in a house once occupied by one of the most beloved icons of the English department, the late Prof. Concepcion “Ching” Dadufalza. I inherited the bungalow on Juan Luna Street when Miss Dadufalza moved out to be with her sister. She could have stayed in it forever as Professor Emeritus—one of the loftiest distinctions a lifelong teacher could aspire for—but she merited better care and companionship in her old age, as only her family could give her. In a sense, of course, the university was Ching Dadufalza’s family—and they would come and visit her in Juan Luna, stalwart wards like the poet Jimmy Abad, her eternal student and virtual son.

Campus housing is one of those few perks of university life that professors look forward to, given the crippling rentals in the metropolis and, just as insufferable, the traffic you have to plow through to get to your classroom in time. Beng and I actually owned a small house in San Mateo (which we’ve since sold to raise funds for a newer car), but the commuting crushed us, so we stayed for many years in a succession of apartments closer to UP until the opportunity arose to live on campus.

That opportunity came when I was appointed Vice President for Public Affairs by President Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo in 2003. I was chair of the English department then and still eager to tickle young minds in the two classes I taught. I felt no great urge to take on a heavier administrative burden—the position came with the kind of prestige that only my UP-alumna mother could boast about to her Tuesday-Circle friends, and very little otherwise by way of extra emoluments. I would end up sending the office’s pockmarked Corona to the body shop for a spray-over at my own expense, figuring that the university’s chief spokesman and lobbyist deserved a veneer of respectability.

But being on call to the President and the office 24/7 was also a good argument to live on campus, and when Miss Dadufalza moved out of Juan Luna, her former home was assigned to me. As far as I was concerned, that privilege of campus housing was my true salary for serving as VP. Whether the larger bungalows for senior faculty or the walk-ups for young instructors, it’s prized not only because it’s affordable and hard to get, but also because… well, let me explain.

Ching’s house had a gazebo put up in the yard for her by her loving students, and when the giant mango trees overhead were fruiting, you could hear mangoes drop on the roof in soft thuds, and pick up the fruits and eat them after a quick wash.

By day, on the job, I would dash off across the city in the old Toyota for meetings with cranky politicians and even crankier students over the proposed new UP Charter. But I came home to sweet mangoes, fragrant papayas, and birdsong in the branches, to the enveloping coolness, the cadena de amor, and the carillon music that had defined Diliman for me since I began roaming the campus as a boy in the early ‘60s, hoping to someday study there. I had never imagined becoming a professor, much less a poobah, and now here I was in a starched barong, defending and propagating the legacy of Rafael Palma and Salvador P. Lopez.

But I began by saying how cool it’s been in Diliman this February. Beng and I have been taking five-kilometer walks every other day to savor the air. Two years short of retirement, I could stop here at the Sunken Garden and just enjoy the dewy scenery.

One afternoon last week, I embarrassed myself in my American Lit class by talking about that scenery, and then uncharacteristically weeping. I told my students that I had just been asked to serve, once again, as VP for Public Affairs, and I wanted to say no because I knew I was going to be sorry when the workload hit and when the problems started streaming in, but I couldn’t, because it was UP asking, and because my mother would be happy, and because UP had given me, quite literally, a good home. So here I am again, brushing my shoes and counting my barongs, a little carillon music tinkling between my ears.

 

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And now let me put in a word for a friend, the writer and translator Chichi Lizot who, as it turns out, had quite a lively and a lovely youth. She wrote me to recall that “My seven-year stint as a flight attendant was perhaps the most daring thing I had ever done. I joined Philippine Airlines when it was still a small family, in 1974. I was barely eighteen!  I naturally think of the late Chona Kasten, epitome of elegance, grace, and class. I flew during her time when many of us regarded her as very much like the head mistress of a revered finishing school that was not easy to get into.”

Chichi wants her fellow PAL alumni to know that on Saturday, February 18, a reunion of over 600 PAL ex-personnel from all departments and indeed from all over the world will take place at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. Latin Night is sponsored by the Association of Former Flight Attendants of Philippine Airlines for the benefit of Tahanan ni Maria, a home for the aged in Carmona, Cavite. Naty Crame Rogers, 94 years old, who began flying in 1946, will show her juniors how to salsa during this Latin-inspired evening of dinner, dance, a fashion show of PAL uniforms through the years, a raffle of great prizes, and many more.

For tickets, please call AFFAP Chairman Christie Altura at 0917-8478117 or AFFAP President Avelyn Jahns at 0917-8199018.