Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him. 

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepeña. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach. 

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.

Penman No. 395: Missing the Magazine

Penman for Monday, August 31, 2020

FEW OF us might have noticed, but one of the casualties of the Internet age has been the magazine as we knew it—the general-interest magazine, which usually came out on weekends, often as a newspaper supplement. With the decline in print-media readership and the depredations on economic and social life brought on by the coronavirus, magazines around the world have been shutting down, although of course that decline long preceded Covid. Some survive in vestigial form, or have gone online, but are nowhere near the familiar and colorful periodicals you couldn’t wait to pull out of the Sunday paper.

People my age still remember the Sunday Times Magazine, the Asia Magazine, the Mirror Magazine, and others of their kind—including, of course, the old standalone Free Press and Weekly Graphic magazines. Unlike the specialized glossies of later decades, they had something for everybody, weren’t just trying to sell you something, allotted several pages for serious literature, and were worth saving and passing along. I spent many an hour in the barbershops of Pasig thumbing through the Free Press and imbibing Nick Joaquin’s reportage on crime and politics while trying to figure out the poetry (too abstruse for my Hardy-Boys years) and gawking at the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the society and entertainment pages. 

With martial law and its aftermath, everything became either overtly political or seemingly in denial of anything gone wrong. The age of gadgets was upon us, and we devoured magazines devoted to the minutest differences between July’s and August’s cellular phone. The pretty ladies remained on the cover, of course, but largely as purveyors of dresses or some other thing; the innocence was gone—or perhaps we had simply lost ours in the interim.

My interest in magazines became a bit more professional in graduate school when my professor in Bibliography, an old-school gentleman named Dr. Kuist, told us that he had done his dissertation on The Gentleman’s Magazine, said to be the first publication to call itself a “magazine” (from the French for “storehouse”) in 1731. Despite its title, it was no girlie mag, and contained a gamut of articles of interest to everyone (a copy I have from November 1773 features an ad for “The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook” and articles on “Arguments in Favour of Rolling-Carriages” and “Description of a Machine for Making Experiments on Air”).

Many years ago, sometime in the early 1990s, when my passion for all things vintage began to be awakened, I spotted an ad in the Classifieds of a newspaper offering a stash of prewar magazines for a reasonable sum, and I drove off in my VW Beetle to a corner of San Juan to retrieve them—three or four milk-can boxes of them, all yellowed and crumbling—from a family that would have thrown them away otherwise. They were mainly copies of the Sunday Tribune Magazine from the 1930s, and some copies of the Sunday Times Magazine from a bit later. 

I continued to add to what had become a de facto collection—copies of the prewar Philippine Magazine and Philippine Touring Topics, among others, as well as issues of Tagalog periodicals like Lipang Kalabaw and even a 1911 issue of La Cultura Filipina. I used to put copies of these on my coffee table when I had an office in UP, to surprise and amuse my visitors with—sorry, folks, don’t have the November issue of the Tatler yet, but here’s a travel mag from 1934.

Make that February 1934, when Philippine Touring Topics contained—like most good magazines of the time—a combination of substantial articles, classy advertisements, and a gorgeous Art-Deco cover. Featured were articles on Igorot folklore, Mindanao fashions, Philippine hardwoods, the gypsies of the Sulu Sea, Philippine tobacco, a voyage from Manila to Bali, and celebrity travelers. (As usual, it was the ads I found most fascinating—for the American President Lines, the 1934 Studebaker, and Alhambra cigars.)

My greatest reward in flipping through these yellowed pages is discovering things I never knew about—things not too remote to be ancient history. In my July 4, 1948 issue of the Sunday Times Magazine, for example, is an article on the winners of that year’s Art Association of the Philippines painting competition. The top prize of P1,000 went to the “basketball-crazy” Carlos Francisco (who, says the anonymously catty commentator, is also “an amateur, not-so-good photographer, avid for picnic photos”); P750 for second prize went to Demetrio Diego; P500 for third prize went to Vicente Manansala “by a nose” over the P250 fourth prize to Cesar Legaspi; two honorable mentions—good enough for artists’ materials—went to the stragglers Diosdado Lorenzo and H. R. Ocampo. Elsewhere in the issue is an article on the all-but-forgotten winner of a 1946 contest for the Philippine Independence Hymn, won by a composition of Restie Umali. On the cover is a radiant Rosie Osmeña, being walked down the aisle by her dad the former President, with an accompanying spread on her wedding trousseau.

What’s not to like? When the Internet goes down—and someday it just might—these magazines with their pictures might just be our best chronicle of life and of the Philippines BC (Before Covid).

Penman No. 393: Room Without a Window

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Penman for Monday, August 2, 2020

 

AT THE desk where I work at home—in my library-cum-man-cave—I face a wall without open windows, which can be confining and depressing, except that it’s the way I like things to be, if I want to get anything done. In my light-headed moments, I think that it would be nice to have a home office perched on top of the house, overlooking everything else, preferably water on one side and a grove of trees on the other. But I’ve lived long enough to know that faced with such beauty, I’d most likely just sit back and drift off to fitful slumber, or get distracted by some unfolding action, a moving blip that will quickly become an excuse to put off the inevitable for another day.

As I might have related here before, this “writer-in-paradise” scenario has happened to me too many times to realize that, alas, it doesn’t work. Like every young writer, I once swore that all I needed was time off in some faraway place, with a view of islands or green rolling hills and a blanket of fog, with an endless supply of coffee—and, all right, a bottle of wine and in those days a carton of Marlboro Reds—to produce the novel that would put a book with my name on the spine in every thinking person’s library.

As it happened, well—it happened. As if I’d stumbled on a fat and over-indulgent genie, I got most of my wishes (except for my Great Gatsby, not yet), in the form of writing fellowships to many of the world’s dreamiest destinations: a cliffside castle in Scotland, a Roman villa in Lombardy, and a 15th-century fortress in Umbria; in my longest engagement, I spent nine months in a Norwich apartment with a huge window that opened to what the English call a “broad,” a small lake dotted with black swans.

You’d think that visual majesty like this would beget a torrent of prose and poetry, and to be fair to my sponsors and to myself, I did eventually produce what I had been expected to. At Hawthornden in Scotland, for example—where I had been preceded by the likes of Ricky de Ungria, Krip Yuson, and Marj Evasco—I was able to write four stories in four weeks, including “Penmanship” and “Voyager,” which became the title-pieces of story collections.

Over the other stays, I labored on drafts which I completed in a mad hurry only after I had returned to Pinoy suburbia and its familiar smog, to the racket of jeepneys and tricycles and the inescapable fragrance of mangoes and bagoong. When you’re in a hostel in Paris or on a boat in Lake Como, the last thing you want to do is write; you tell yourself, in all honesty, “Right now, I just want to live,” so you breathe in the foreign air and step on the grass and imbibe the local brew (or, as I did when I first encountered the Atlantic on the Jersey shore, dip your finger into the ocean and taste it). I did a lot of living, with the writing to follow after.

All that blessed laziness would catch up with me later, in sternly immobile deadlines that consume me with what truly drives me to write and deliver—a deep and abiding sense of guilt, of having enjoyed myself too much with too little to show for the experience (even 40-plus books later, the guilt lingers). And then I turn into a writing machine, in my small room filled with the kind of knickknacks—the old typewriters, the Mabini seascapes, the Rizal bust, the box of chocolates, chips, and crackers—that tell me I’m home and relatively safe, with no one to bother me but Beng and our three-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, who has diplomatic license to disturb me anytime.

I may have no windows where I work, but in front of me are two paintings—a nude by E. Aguilar Cruz from 1975 and another by C. V. Lopez from 1950 (which prompted Buboy to ask, “Why do they have no clothes?”, to which I could only say, “Because it’s hot!”); a large print of the Strait of Basilan from the 1840s; two hand-colored maps of the Philippines from the 1750s by Jacques Bellin; a map of my home province, Romblon, from the Atlas de Filipinas of 1899; and a poster of the Parker Duofold Centennial fountain pen from 2000. When I look at them, horizons open in my mind.

I don’t have a large collection of maps (it’s one of those little voices telling me “Don’t go there!”), but I do like this view of islands, which substitutes for all the pretty landscapes I’ve seen outside my windows elsewhere, reminding me at once of home and of the world beyond. The fact that they are centuries old assures me, like my musty books, that there was a past, that history happened—that there will be a reckoning, and that the books will be written by people like me.

And then I feel the guilt lifting, replaced by an urge to write, and even an incipient pleasure at knowing that whatever I type will survive me, be it trash or treasure, so I have to do a good job of it, now, while I’m still awake and alert to every minute ticking by.

 

Penman No. 391: Trouble in Literary Wolf-land

 

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Penman for July 6, 2020

 

IT’S NOT every day that an old guy like me learns something almost totally new about what’s happening in my literary backyard, but your attention tends to wander over a long lockdown, and one day my eyes latched onto a headline from The New York Times, which announced that “A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question.” I had to do a double-take and ask (as you probably would) “Wolf-kink what???”

I sat transfixed as I read the story, which turned out to be about a legal battle over copyright issues in what my young Creative Writing students call “fan fiction” or “fanfic,” which is a genre of literature basically devoted to, well, making new stories out of old ones. Wikipedia defines it as “a type of fictional text written by fans of any work of fiction where the author uses copyrighted characters, settings, or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their writing.”

So you could begin with, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and write your own version of the play (or turn it into fiction), where Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?” because he’s a gay man dying to come out. Now, I seriously just made that up, but on a hunch, I Googled “Hamlet fanfic gay,” and guess what—there’s a story on Wattpad titled “I Gave You My Heart” where you can “follow the romance between Hamlet and his ‘friend’ Horatio.” Its portentous beginning goes thus: “Hamlet looked over at Horatio, shaking his head slightly. ‘Not here, not now,’ he thought, hoping Horatio understood. Horatio nodded slightly. He understood. They headed back to the castle. Hamlet held Horatio’s hand and led him down the hall toward his bedroom.”

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Nope, certainly not Will Shakespeare speaking there (all the poor guy could say was “To thine own self be true”), but you get the idea. Fanfic is a literary free-for-all.

Or maybe not so free. The “wolf-kink” brouhaha was about two fanfic authors—Addison Cain and Zoey Ellis—who both wrote novels about wolves having sex—or, to put it more dramatically, “In both books, Alpha men are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage. In both books, the women try and fail to suppress their pheromones and give in to the urge to mate.” Ellis was allegedly copying Cain, and the catfight was on, suit vs. countersuit, over pride and apparently quite a bit of money. Above the legal issues hovered the larger question of where does “originality” stop and begin? As the Times reported, “It’s hard to imagine that two writers could independently create such bizarrely specific fantasy scenarios. As it turns out, neither of them did. Both writers built their plots with common elements from a booming, fan-generated body of literature called the Omegaverse.”

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The “Omegaverse”? More research for another time. But the story got me thinking about how authors have indeed taken off from other people’s work to create something newish—and the “ish” there is important, because the “new” work depends precisely on the reader’s presumed familiarity with its model to make sense. But that connection is really a bonus, because the new work also has to be able to stand on its own if it’s to be any good, and, at the highest level, to be able to present new insights and to raise new questions about the original. This way, you achieve a kind of conversation across the centuries between authors and between their readers.

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One of the most popular of these “adaptations,” as some fanfic might actually be, is the Broadway musical West Side Story, with was based on Romeo and Juliet, with New York street gangs taking the place of Shakespeare’s feuding families.

I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but looking back, I was surprised to see how much of my own work was a kind of fan fiction. Remember James Joyce’s classic story “Araby,” which lent a memorable poignancy to the word “crush”? It’s become a masterplot which others have followed, among them NVM Gonzalez in his story “Bread of Salt.” In the early 1990s, I wrote my own version titled “Ybarra,” an “Araby” in reverse where the boy is now an old man.

Three of my plays were fanfic: “Mac Malicsi, TNT” was about a fleet-footed Pinoy in the US, taking off from Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” which in turn was an adaptation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” “Ang Butihing Babae ng Timog,” about bargirls and their patrons, was inspired by another Brecht play, “The Good Woman of Setzuan.” And “Kalapating Dagat,” in which Simoun returns to Manila on a ship from Hong Kong and meets a lady of the night named Augusta, relies heavily on the audience’s association of Simoun with Rizal’s protagonist in the Fili.

They may not be as exciting as Alpha and Omega wolves in heat coupling under a harvest moon, but at least no one’s sued me yet. I doubt that Brecht and Rizal or their estates would have bothered—at least until I make my first millions, which I’m still waiting for.

Penman No. 390: Faulkner in Manila

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2020

 

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote about the visit to Manila in 1951 of the American writer Wallace Stegner, mentioning that ten years earlier, he had been preceded by the even more celebrated Ernest Hemingway. I also said that they were followed in August 1955 by yet another titan of American literature, the 1949 Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner—a visit I’d first learned about by staring at a small poster from that event on the wall of the old Creative Writing Center in UP back in the 1980s.

That poster, wall, and center sadly burned down with the Faculty Center fire four years ago, but I’ve always been intrigued by what brought these big-name authors over to our shores, and what they possibly could have told their local counterparts (there’s a picture somewhere of a very young and very short NVM Gonzalez getting the autograph of a hulking Hemingway).

Hemingway was stopping over on his way to China; Stegner was brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation; and—thanks to a clipping and other materials sent by my Washington, DC-based friend, Dr. Erwin Tiongson—we know now that Faulkner came here courtesy of the US Department of State, which sent their prize author on a tour of Asia, presumably to foster peace and goodwill during the Cold War. (Interestingly, Faulkner’s wife Estelle had visited Manila the year before, and would write:  “The artificially induced gaiety of the Far East is very pronounced here—a feverish clutching at nothing that is little short of terrifying—As I sit here now, looking out on Manila Bay with its warships and carriers—every one of them ready for instant action—I feel insecurity verging on panic.”)

William Faulkner may have been a giant in his time, but to young readers today weaned on Gaiman and Murakami, he might as well be as remote a figure as W. Somerset Maugham or Henry James. Some may have come across his classic short story “A Rose for Emily,” and a luckier few his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and Light in August. As a fictionist, he was chiefly known for his use of the “stream of consciousness” technique that gave even his lowliest characters an ability to articulate their deepest and most complex thoughts and emotions.

But what did Faulkner have to say to his Filipino audience? I found the answer by locating the book Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York: Random House, 1968, edited by James Meriwether and Michael Milgate), which has a whole chapter on “Faulkner in Manila,” based on transcripts of Faulkner’s talks published earlier by the Philippine Writers League. 

There’s a short but charming documentary on YouTube  where you can see him at home in Oxford, Mississippi in 1952 and listen to his soft, somewhat cigar-burnt voice, and you can imagine yourself sitting in the audience in Manila in 1955, as he imparts these notions, among many others:

“I think that there is a great deal of beauty in any national language, national literature. But that tradition of literature must still be furthered more so that it can meet and can give and take from other national literary traditions. But by all means develop one’s own because there is a certain portion in the legends, the customs of any people, that are valuable, and the best way to get them into a universal literature is to bring them first into a national literature…. Nobody should turn his back on his own tradition, his own language, his own culture, to assume a foreign one. Let his own and the foreign meet and produce a universal one.”

“The writer must believe always in people, in freedom; he must believe that man must be free in order to create the art; and art is in my opinion one of the most important factors in human life because it has been art, literature, folklore, music, painting which have been the record of man’s rise from his beginnings. It is the writer’s duty to show that man has an immortal soul…. A writer’s job is not simply to get books printed but to find the truth, the fundamental truth…. I think that the setting of a novel is just incidental, that the novelist is writing about truth. I mean by truth the things that are true to all people, which are love, friendship, courage, fear, greed; that he writes in the tongue which he knows, which happens to be the tongue of his own native land…. I write about American Mississippi simply because that is what I know best.”

“There is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of saying what one thinks. One must have integrity to know the truth, to believe the truth, to speak the truth, for the sake of truth, not for the sake of aggrandizement or profit or policy, but the truth because it is true.”

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Flotsam & Jetsam No. 49: Penmanship

In solidarity with fellow artists sharing their work to entertain others over the lockdown, I’m happy to present this copy of “Penmanship,” a short story I wrote in 1994 at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I was on a fellowship to write a book. As some readers know, there’s a story behind that story having to do with my serendipitous acquisition of a “grail” pen, a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy that figures centrally in the story.

Here’s the back story, from a column I wrote in 2009:

In 1994, on a writing fellowship in Scotland, I visited the Thistle Pen Shop in downtown Edinburgh, whose address I had found in the phone book. (Every time I travel to a new city, I look over the yellow-page listings for pen shops, resale shops, and antique stores.) On a lark, I asked the lady behind the counter, “Would you happen to have a 1930s Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red?” That pen, at that time, was my “Holy Grail” pen, something I had been fantasizing about since seeing its picture in a catalog. The lady beamed at me and said, “As a matter of fact, we do!” And then she whipped the pen out from under the counter, much to my great surprise, disbelief, and grief—grief, because I was sure I couldn’t possibly afford it, unless I went deep in debt via my credit card. And that, of course, was what happened. I carried that pen home with as much care and wonderment as I would have accorded a newborn baby, but I was almost immediately stricken with buyer’s remorse. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “how could I have spent a whole month’s salary—the rent, the groceries, the bills, etc.—on a single pen?” To soothe my throbbing conscience, I resolved to write a story about—guess what—a fountain pen. That was the story “Penmanship,” which later won a prize that made up for my precious Parker’s purchase price.

So here we go, and pleasant reading.

PENMANSHIP

THERE WAS nothing better on the earth that could write, he had often thought, than his Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, a brown-striped, gold-nibbed model made in 1938. It wasn’t him but the pen, gliding across the foolscap, filling in the vastness of the page with words that may not have meant all that much but which looked beautiful because of the personality and the infinite variety of their shape. 

            He was in love with his pen and his penmanship, and he exercised that love in letters to old friends and schoolmates, casual acquaintances, even anonymous business addressees—such as his memorial-plan company, when he missed a premium payment—surprising them with an old-fashioned grace that had long lost out to the perfunctory mechanism of typewriters and computer printouts. The typesetters had swirling fonts that looked elegant enough to most people in need of script for wedding invitations and that sort of rare emergency, but it still seemed too regular, too measured, for him who valued the spontaneity of wet ink insinuating itself into the barely visible fibers of the paper, like so much blood into so many veins. It was the only art he knew—he spent his days as a senior clerk at a government institute for blind and handicapped people, housed in a decrepit mansion along Harrison Street in Pasay—and now, close to retirement and facing not much more than an awesome blankness of years, he applied himself to it with a vigor that his recessive frame belied.

            “Dear So-and-So,” he would begin, “I was browsing through my books today, thinking to toss out some mangy paperbacks to free up space on the shelves, when I came across the copy of Salinger’s Nine Storieswhich you borrowed about eight years ago. What caught my attention was the receipt that you’d stuck in it, a restaurant bill (at the Selecta), for the dinner that we must have had when you returned the book—two soft drinks, a salad (for you), a chicken sandwich (for me), three cups of coffee (yours and mine) and a slice of cheesecake (yours), all for the glorious bargain of P69.50. And it all came back to me, how depressed you felt then about losing J. after all those years, and how someone like Salinger perked you up in the strangest ways. You’ll remember that he writes about depressed people all the time, but he manages to save some of them, usually with the entry of a child into the picture….”

            And he would go on and on for a few pages, not caring too much if So-and-So wished to be reminded of the darknesses of his or her distant past. The pen pushed him on to one word and another, creating a sudden and inescapable intimacy less between himself and So-and-So but between him and the paper, and he mailed these letters off almost as an afterthought, and at that with a twinge of sorrow, because he would never see them again.

            He was no calligrapher—his script was somewhat crabbed, and his terminal g’s and y’s had a tendency to spill over onto the next word—and he thought nothing of crossing out an offending word or line and writing on the margins. That was part of the whole game: to explore, to retreat and retrace one’s steps, to leap here and tiptoe there, to fall into a pit and crawl out grinning. The finished page was a record of his ventures, mishaps and all; perhaps he wanted them to see how he had triumphed in the end, to his very-truly-yourses.

HE MIGHT have become a writer, but never did. In his twenties, when things were better and his physician-father had given up on turning his son into another scribbler of prescriptions, he had come out of college with an English degree, thinking to teach and to write novels in his spare time. He taught for a while in a downtown university, preaching the timeless virtues of Joyce’s “Araby” to brown pug-nosed faces intent on becoming engineers and chemists, and resigned—or, some said, was kicked out—when he fell in love with an older, married co-teacher, who did not return his blathering affections and had complained to their superiors. Besides, he felt ill at ease with masses of people, who scratched their toes and dreamed aloud of Sundays while he tried to impress upon them the nuances of Joyce’s play with light and shadow. He found another job as a librarian for another college, staying there for years and revelling in the solitude of his corner desk in a quiet hall, until the school went bankrupt and closed down, disposing of all its books to the second-hand dealer, and of its employees to their various fortunes. He had begun a few stories at his desk, perhaps a novel even, but the towering proximity of the greats on the shelves humbled him—a modest man, otherwise—into incompletion, and he took to writing letters to newspaper editors in long, handwritten essays, paragraphs from which would get printed now and then in severely truncated form. His prose, he knew, was too quaint and longwinded for the papers, but it pleased him to flex his hand and to leave a record, somewhere, of his thoughts in passing, of his passing.

            “Dear Sir,” he would say—in a frame of mind that would admit no women to editorships—”Anent your editorial of June the 21st, it strikes me that the Guadalupe area might be better served by a bridge spanning the Pasig at a point helpful not only to the traffic overhead, but to river transport itself, the possibilities of which, I feel, have sorely been neglected since Rizal’s time….” Several paragraphs later, he would sign his name with a flourish, blow lightly over the hardening ink, wipe the Parker’s nib clean with a tissue, and screw the cap back on slowly, as if he were slipping a ring onto a woman’s finger, so as not to crush the thread.

            He took the utmost care of this pen. It was unusual in its design, even for fountain pens of its time, without a lever or a bladder; it was filled by unscrewing a nearly invisible cap in the rear of the barrel, and unlocking a pump that, with a diaphragm, drew a week’s worth of ink into the translucent cavity of the barrel itself. He had taken it in for servicing only twice in more than thirty years—there was still a shop on the Escolta that did repairs on such old pens, now run by a Chinese woman who inherited the place from her father. He sometimes wondered what would happen if that shop were to close down, as well; everyone was using ballpoints and rollerballs, and the shop’s business now consisted mainly in such garish conveniences. Or perhaps he would die first, and take his Parker with him, tucked into his breastpocket, unless the funeral-parlor attendant stripped its nib and clip off for their gold. It was one of his most distressing nightmares—not to die, but for the pen to be so savaged after him.

            The pen had been a gift from his father upon his graduation from high school—an heirloom, practically, as it had been used both by his father and his grandfather, who had been an accountant for a shipping firm in Binondo. His grandfather’s name was still imprinted faintly on the barrel, a three-part, Spanish-sounding name. That, and a magazine advertisement for a stationer’s company that he chanced upon in the stacks of the college library, told him exactly how old it was: 1934, a few years before he was born, when the large and airy house on Donato Street must have been spanking white, and his mother would have been swishing about in a terno, minding the lilies in the vases. All that was gone, but for the pen—his parents, the family wealth, the breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder. The house had long been torn down to make way for a grocery, and when he passed it by in a jeepney, the last time, he could barely recognize the lot, but for the ancient fire hydrant on the corner. 

            He had a few friends from college, mostly members of large, comfortable families and getting on in years themselves, with whom he kept up a lopsidedly unilateral correspondence. There was one phone in the office, but few would call, and he didn’t appreciate that as much as the occasional postcard from Paris, or Crete, or Jogjakarta, when they remembered him at all. So-and-So had been a woman who had lost her husband to a 19-year-old singer; she had been a bright young thing in college and he might have gone for her himself, but for his shyness. He had given her books of poetry, with lavish dedications, but she had not taken—or had refused—the hint. When he fell for that co-teacher, all caution, for once, flew out the window.

            “My sweet, my lovely Alice,” he would write, with all the ardor of his mid-twenties, “The mere sight of you in the cafeteria this morning warmed my cooling coffee, and I wished that I had been younger and been one of your students, not that Avogadro’s number interests me so much as your own child-bearing figure….”

            Now, in his fifties, he could not tell how and why he had been so brash. All the daring left in him went to his letters and his penmanship. He thought himself bold for suggesting that bridge, or a new way of determining the fitness of people for the civil service, or a theory—which he mailed to the police but which was never acknowledged nor acted upon—about who murdered the young wife, then six months pregnant, of a Bacolod sugar planter. In his thirties, he had sought and paid for the services of a few women—just after his father died and he came into some money—but they meant nothing to him; no challenge nor poetry nor romance there, just cash and urgent venery. Now he was content with occasionally relieving himself, or with nature and nighttime attending to him in bed. He was, in fact, losing his potency, not that it mattered to anyone else. He lived in a room in a boardinghouse on Dos Castillas Street in Sampaloc, two jeepney rides away. The other boarders—all of them men and mostly maritime engineering students—saw him to be a reclusive and mild-spoken bachelor uncle who preferred to wear Chinese-cotton boxer shorts, which he laundered himself and hung out to dry in the space behind the kitchen.

AND THEN, as it so happened, and against his better judgement, the penman fell in love again.

            She was one of the blind people his institute had taken to employing to offer public proof of its sincerity in assisting the disabled. Her name was Nora, and she was thin and pale-looking, and she had been blinded in an accident in her early twenties so that she retained a clear and powerful idea of what colors and figures were like; she had finished high school as a normal, sighted person, and would have gone on to a degree in law or economics, but for that accident. She had taught herself quickly to read Braille, to lose no time in adjusting to her physical circumstances, and now went through daily life without too much trouble. But she armed herself with the forwardness of those unjustly burdened to reclaim and to prove their worth.

            She was assigned to his charge, and when they first met they did not like each other all that much. He thought her an intrusive nuisance, and she thought him an overbearing fool. Her job was to help him organize the office files—very few things were computerized, and the only computer sat idly in the Director’s office—and his job was to train her, somehow, in knowing where everything was by sheer position and feel. The trouble, of course, was that he observed his own idiosyncratic filing system; that was part of his mastery of the place.

            “I know where everything is,” he told her from behind his desk. “Perhaps we can find something more useful for you to do.”

            “But you won’t be here forever,” Nora said, staring in the direction of his voice. “Someone else will need to know the system.”

            He adjusted some papers on his desk to avoid her eyes. “They’ll be giving you my job, are they?”

            “Oh, no—sir,” she answered quickly. “I can’t do that—obviously.” She looked away. An uneasy silence passed between them, during which he noticed that her hair was thick and shiny, and she noticed that his breathing was somewhat labored, although she could smell no trace of tobacco in the room. She heard a scraping of wood and knew that he was rising from his chair.

            “Well, then, let’s get to it. We have three filing cabinets in this room—here, here, to your left—and the files are arranged by subject rather than years. All invoices in the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, then personnel records—now we’ll need to put tabs in Braille on every file—I wonder what the use of all of this is,” he thought aloud, and immediately felt sorry when he saw her biting her lip. He never meant to be unkind, but his social graces had withered from disuse. “Would you like some coffee?” He kept an old thermos bottle of hot water and a jar of instant coffee behind his desk. 

            She seemed startled by his offer. “No, I—”

            “It’s nearly coffee break, anyway,” he said. “You can leave and come back in fifteen minutes, or you can have some coffee with me.” She heard the bottle being unscrewed and smelled the fragrance of steaming cork, but she remained in her chair. All by herself she would have spent those fifteen minutes sitting in another chair she knew in the lobby, listening to the traffic, to the rush of people and the streetside commerce; the afternoon tabloids would be out, but no one really shouted out the headlines anymore. She heard him making two cups of coffee with identical clinks of the teaspoon. “One teaspoon of sugar?”

            “Two. Thank you.”

            He paused briefly and she knew he was looking at her, surely wondering what misfortune had delivered her to this place, this room, this moment of utter pointlessness. There was a small scar on her right cheek, away from him, where they had made a suture that had healed badly, and her hand went up to it absently.

            “I’m sorry about your—your accident,” he said, depositing a cup beside her on the desk. She felt a whiff of vapor up her sleeve.

            “So am I,” she said, realizing with a great annoyance that he had been glancing at her own file, the papers that came with her and bared her unprotected to this absolute stranger. She went on the offensive and said, before sipping her coffee, “Please tell me something about yourself.”

            He seemed taken aback. “There’s—there’s not much to say. I’ve been working here for—oh, nine years now, and before that I worked in a library. I suppose I like quiet places, and—and quiet people, are you a quiet person, Miss—”

            “Nora. Have you ever gone abroad?”

            “No, why do you ask?”

            “I did, once, when I was young, my parents took me to Hong Kong. That’s all I remember, now.” It wasn’t true; she remembered many other things, but Victoria Peak and a large dark bird darting across the landscape burned in her memory.

            “You’re very lucky, then,” he said, and felt silly again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll do some work.” He reached for the pen in his pocket.

            “But breaktime’s just begun.” She could hear idle chatter from elsewhere in the building. Someone had opened a window somewhere and the dank heat lifting off the bay, from far off, trailed into her senses.

            “It isn’t really work, I just need to finish a letter.”

            “To whom?”

            “To no one interesting,” he said, to shut her up. He was suddenly glad that she was sightless, and could not know that he had begun a letter to the editor of The Manila Standard, outlining his views on a new plan to contain corruption in the armed forces. He drew the sheet out from his drawer, on which two paragraphs had been written; he needed a strong and witty closure. “… If those we pay to secure our welfare instead secure their own—” That was a neat septameter.

            She heard faint, scratchy motions; she was expecting him to peck away at a typewriter.

            “What are you writing with?”

            “A pen. I—”

            “It doesn’t sound like a ballpoint, it—it doesn’t skip—”

            “It’s not, it’s an old fountain pen—you know, it squirts ink when you press—” He sighed, putting the cap back on halfway, to keep the ink wet on the nib; she was going to be impossible.

            “I’ve never used one,” she said.

            “No, you wouldn’t have. They don’t use them anymore. This one’s older than I am.” Why did he say that, he thought.

            “How old are you—sir?”

            “Fifty-two. And you’re—ah, twenty-eight.” The file again. “You’re nearly half my age. I’ve lived twice as long.”

            “Was it a good life?”

            “It isn’t over, yet.”

            She could feel, almost see, him turn his back to her and scratch away at another table, a smaller one, most likely, where a typewriter might have been, which meant that he had lifted and put the typewriter down on the floor. That explained the soft clatter of metal bones.

            “I can type—perfectly. You’d be amazed. That’s why they sent me here.”

            Over his shoulder, he saw the glint in her eyes. He saw the mended scar. Suddenly he didn’t want to know too much more about her, and gently closed her file.

            “Thank you,” she said.

            “For what?”

            “You shut my folder. I felt the air stir, like a fan.”

            He crossed out a line furiously and put the pen down, uncapped. “It’s nearly three-fifteen,” he said. “It’s time to work.”

THE NEXT few days and weeks, she indeed amazed him with her uncomplaining industry and her prodigious memory. Under his direction, she put title tabs on all the files, and sorted them out by year within the drawers, and could produce a folder that he needed within two minutes. Twice or thrice, he’d tested her just to satisfy himself, and he had learned to rustle the papers afterwards, so as not to be found out. She no longer needled him for details of his private life, nor vexed him with strange, unbidden questions. During the coffee breaks, she sat out in the lobby, and he discovered that now and then she smoked, puffing deeply on Marlboros she kept in a skirt pocket. She wore large, dark-colored, formal-looking skirts and the same cut of blouse in white or beige or some dry pastel shade, and the kind of stubby shoes that nuns and nurses wore to their graves, and he began to wonder where or with whom she lived. There was a Paranaque address in her file, and he knew she took a jeepney in the afternoon, putting on a pair of shades; it was the only time she used a slender aluminum walking stick. He had to cross the street himself to get a ride going the other way, and he made sure not to linger on her side of the street too long, not wanting to upset her. But, having said his gruff goodbyes and crossed, he made sure that she was on a jeepney and safely seated, first, before flagging down his own. In the office, they spoke in low, almost formal tones, and it took a while for him to ask her to stay again for coffee.

            “You’ll be writing letters,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

            “Not today,” he said, quickly and very quietly returning the Parker to his pocket.

            “All right, then—two sugars—”

            “I remember.”

            He made the coffee while she sat in the same chair across his desk. He wondered if she wanted to smoke.

            “You can smoke, if you wish, there’s a saucer you can use for an ashtray—”

            “No, I don’t think I will, thank you. I don’t really want to, it gives me a headache—”

            “Then why do you?” He had bought a special blend, an imported instant, and hoped that she would like it.

            She laughed, smoothing out a crease on her skirt. “It fills up the time.” She felt for the handle on the cup and brought it to her lips. “You’ve been watching me in the lobby.”

            “I—I was getting water for the heater.” He kept a heating coil in a drawer; it was against regulations, but no one bothered him. “What do you think of, when you’re sitting down there?”

            “Nothing interesting,” she said, remembering. “You’ve changed your coffee—”

            “Yes, do you like it?”

            “Will you write me a letter?”

            “What—”

            “I mean, write a letter for me? With your pen. When you’re not too busy.”

            A drop of coffee had fallen on the sheet he would have written on, had she not stayed, and he put his cup down to blot it with a matted handkerchief.

            “Yes, of course, but—why? You’re a marvelous typist, you type better than me—”

            “I need something personal. I want something personal, like it’s been written by a real person. That’s what your letters look like, don’t they?”

            “I suppose so.” He sat in his chair and looked at the coffee stain, a pale yellow-hearted carnation with irregular brown edges.

            “Is your penmanship like a woman’s, would you say?”

            He thought he should feel offended, but did not. “It’s hard to tell. We were trained in school—it was a subject—we all wrote pretty much the same way.” He wanted to take her fingers and wrap them around his pen, to show her: this is how I write my T’s and B’s and G’s.

            “I’d do it myself but I’m clumsy with pens—”

            “I understand. Do you want me to write it now?” His fingers were poised on the Parker.

            She finished her coffee in a deep gulp that caused her to grimace. “There won’t be time. When you’re free, would you come with me to my place? It’s not too far—”

            “Yes, yes, of course, I’m free this afternoon.” He remonstrated with himself over the haste with which he answered, but it was true: there was only the room on Dos Castillas with its punched-out capiz shell windows and the laundry to do.

            “Thank you, you’re very kind,” she said. I haven’t had a chance to be, he thought, not for so long.

THEY ALIGHTED from the jeepney along a street not too far from where the international airport sprawled; a departing jetplane preened its wings in the sky. He had sat beside her during the ride, and she had not said very much beyond giving the driver instructions on where to let them off. When his forearm brushed hers, she trembled and he shrank away, as if embarrassed, as if it were the last thing in the world he would have wanted to happen. She sensed his discomfort and she nearly called the whole thing off, thinking of some dumb apology to make for having taken his time, but it was too late.

            She measured out the sidewalk, tapping her stick against familiar guideposts, and they stopped in front of a modest four-door, two-storey apartment with an iron gate and a large crack running up the mossy wall that separated it from a vacant lot on the other side, overgrown with grass. Greenish water slid through the crack. 

            “Watch your step,” she said. She knew that he wore leather soles; her own shoes had deep rubber grooves. She slid the key into the last door; another, older woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slitting eggplants. This woman seemed surprised to see him, and greeted him formally, which he returned.

            “Munying,” Nora said to the woman, in a tone he had never heard her use, “bring out some softdrinks, please, and leave us alone.”

            “Yes, manang,” Munying said in a schoolgirl’s voice, and did as she was told. Munying served them two bottles of Coke from a refrigerator on which the enamel had begun to crackle like an eggshell, and went out the door.

            He sat on a broad-armed wooden sofa with large floral patterns carved into the backrest. The apartment’s drab pink walls were bare, but for a painting of a nubile provincial woman bathing in a stream, her shoulders glistening forever. Nora had hung her walking stick onto a nail behind the door, and she lit up a Marlboro from her pack with certain, numbered moves, and when, unthinking, he slid the marble ashtray closer to her on the coffeetable, she said “No, please don’t,” and he understood. She had everything within reach, where she remembered them to be.

            “This is all that’s left,” she said, exhaling. “But I live simply—and there’s the job.”

            “What was there before?” he asked.

            “Property. A life.”

            “It isn’t everything,” he said weakly, remembering his own parents and the big house with the adelfa blooming by the gate. You and I, Nora, he was thinking, we have much more in common than you can imagine.

            For a moment she considered a scathing retort, but held back, knowing he was trying to be kind. She forced herself into a happy recollection of Hong Kong in mid-February, bright and chilly, the milk-glass whiteness of lychees, the seamless blue of sky and ocean. “We used to own this whole apartment building, and that lot next door. They’ll be building an office complex on it, soon. Munying said the architects were there, the other day. I just sold it last month, after all these years.”

            “Then you’re better off than I am. You have savings. You can put them in a time deposit, or in the stock market.” He felt slightly put off by her revelation, as though she had seen him all along to be a scrawny little man, as though she had been spending someone else’s time while hoarding her own.

            “That letter—”

            “Yes?” He would be glad to be done with it quickly, and leave.

            “Promise you won’t ask me any questions.”

            It hardly seemed fair, but yes, he promised.

            “There’s some paper on top of the refrigerator. Munying uses it to write her people in Ozamis.”

            Why didn’t you ask her, he thought, taking the blue-ruled pad of yellow paper. He settled back into his seat, positioning the pad on the armrest, and uncapping his pen. He gave it two taps in the air to let the ink out. He felt like a secretary taking dictation on her lunch break.

            “Are you comfortable?” she asked.

            No, he thought, but let’s have it.

            She took another drag and the smoke swirled around her face like a windblown scarf. She thought of a man, this other man, receiving and reading her letter in the hard, unpolluted light of another country, another season. Would he read it in the open meadow, or in his room, on the table with the gooseneck lamp—Munying had described the picture, many years ago, the very last one he had sent—and would he smile and keep it in his pocket, like a charm against evil and temptation, against forgetfulness and the plangent sorrows of separation?

            “Nora—”

            “Yes. ‘My dearest Mark,’“ she began to dictate, and shut her eyes.

            “‘Mark’?” he asked, involuntarily, and he knew there would be no answer.

            “‘—’You’ll be surprised to hear from me again, after all this time, and to see me writing—yes, with my own eyes and fingers’—” She paused, flinching at what she had brought herself to say, then smiling with the overspilling confidence of the damned. “—’With my own eyes and fingers, although they’ve changed, if you remember anything at all. I’ve changed’—please underline the ‘I’—in the most remarkable ways, since—since my operation in—in Hong Kong…. Oh, yes, I’ve been back there, many times, with Terry and Susan and some friends you never met….”

            “Is that ‘Terry’ with a ‘y’?” he asked, although he had already written it down, to give her more time, to suppress his own rampant disbelief.

            “—’It’s strange how things work out, and they do, they do…. You were afraid to know what would happen, weren’t you, but so was I. I’m sorry about all those letters then, things were so fresh, so confused, I could barely get myself to type your name…. My darkest fear—a bad pun, isn’t that?’—”

            “Are you asking me, or—or Mark?”

            “Please,” she said, and he wrote the phrase down. “—‘Was that of facing a wall or a fence I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t jump over them, you know, not knowing what was on the other side….’” She gave him time to catch up with her. She could hear the furious scratching of the nib, the dashes, the full stops and the commas. “‘I took this jump and here I am, whole and alive and well again, though a little short of breath…. Last summer I joined the girls on a weekend trip to Boracay. I’m sorry I can send no pictures, I gained some pounds where you don’t want them. I can’t show you everything just yet, can I?… A German tourist—an anesthesiologist, he said—flirted with us, but I remembered you. I’m thinking of taking a trip out to Germany, sometime—not to visit this tourist, silly—or somewhere in Europe, just to see the castles and cathedrals, the changing colors of the leaves, maybe Spain, maybe England—should I cross over the Atlantic and see you? Is it pretty in New Jersey? Maybe not just yet, don’t you think?… They say you’re a paralegal now, I suppose that means you’ll be a lawyer very soon like you’d always wanted to be…. That’s good, let nothing’—” She paused to crush the stub of her cigarette on the ashtray, and then lit up another one immediately. “—’Let nothing get in the way of what you want. That’s how I think, I wouldn’t have survived, otherwise. I want you to be happy. I, want, you’—’“

            His pen hovered above the paper like a dragonfly. He could not bear to look at her. She was shrouded in smoke, she willed the smoke to happen, to be there between them.

            “I want you to have a good life, and to think well of me. Always, with love, Nora.”

            He was about to cap his pen when she raised a finger, and he wrote again.

            “Just a short PS, please. ‘I’ve sent something to your account. I hope the number hasn’t changed. The market’s been doing very well, no need to be embarrassed, you’ll need it more than I do. I think I know how paralegals live in New Jersey. I can imagine’—Would you cross out that last line, please?”

            “‘I can imagine’?”

            “Yes.”

            He drew a line across the phrase but it was easy to read through. It seemed a fair compromise between saying and not saying. “Is that all?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you—would you like me to write out the address on an envelope?” He had seen no envelopes where the paper was.

            “No, thank you. I’ll… I’ll type out the address, he’ll be surprised when he opens it.”

            “We forgot the date.”

            “It doesn’t matter…. Do you think he’ll believe it was me?”

            He caught a blob of ink on the tip of the nib with his thumb. Old pens did that, when they were nearly empty, or when you took them up in airplanes, not having been designed to fly. “That depends on how much he remembers.”

            She thought that over and said, “I know he’ll think it was mine.”

            With everything to ask but nothing more to say, he put the Parker Vacumatic back in his pocket, and took his leave. Munying was at the gate, munching on a banana she had gotten from somewhere.

THAT NIGHT he could hardly sleep, wracked by a welling clamor in his chest. It was as if he was growing another pair of arms and hands within—all of them, all of him, wanting to hold her, then to shake her, then to clutch her tightly when she shook. Nora, Nora, he thought, what are you doing to yourself, what are you doing to me?

            He wondered what he would say to her when she came in for work in the morning. She would act, he was sure, as if nothing at all had happened. He would offer coffee, and she would decline, preferring the vacant lobby to his piercing gaze. He might play dumb, and wait until she imploded from the burden of her lie, but he could not. He despaired in knowing that she was stronger than he was.

            He sat up, against the wall, at the head of a tube-iron bed with flaking paint that might have come from a hospital. His shorts and the sheets were soaked in yellow by the 40-watt bulblight. His kneecaps shone like brass knobs, and his skin as well had begun to shine like a carapace. There was nothing much for her to see, and the sheer absurdity of what he was thinking made him want to chuckle, but his throat was too parched for even that. When a trio of boarders marched in past midnight from their post-exam carousing, joshing each other in the hallway about a go-go dancer who came this close to being scarred for life by their fingernails, he banged a fist against the wall, and they simmered down instantly.

            He rose from his bed and sat at the little table, by his books, with people like Eliot and Aeschylus and Fitzgerald at his elbow. Yet he would not have them now; they could not have been more dead. What lived in this night was a filthy hurt.

            He saw his pen beside his wallet on the table and angrily filled it with ink. He would write her a letter she would never read in his own hand, but no matter; he would, one morning, punch it out in Braille, or shout it to her face, or give up his own eyes for her to see what she had caused. He felt overcome with precious feelings.

            The Parker Vacumatic glinted in the room light, poised to strike. It was ringed with bands of gold, and promised a wealth of words. The merest pressure on its nib could deepen an emotion.

            The pen felt heavy, never felt heavier in his hand, but he could not even tell if he should call her “dear.”

(You can find “Penmanship” and 40 other stories of mine in Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, published by Anvil Publishing in 2019, and available from Anvil online and at National Book Store.)

Penman No. 387: Wallace Stegner in Manila

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2020

LIKE MANY of you, I’ve spent much of the lockdown opening boxes and sorting out files I haven’t touched in years. As a certified pack rat, I keep papers and other effects going back to my grade school years, so my periodic shakedowns inevitably turn up things I never knew I had, or that I’d completely forgotten about. Last month’s haul included our wedding pictures from 1974, a huge picture book of Paris from 1890, and prints from artist-friends like Orly Castillo, Joel Soliven, and the late Lito Mayo. 

So amusing and engrossing were these finds that I almost missed a frayed copy of The Literary Apprentice1951, published by the UP Writers Club and edited by two young writers, Raul R. Ingles and S. V. Epistola. I had the privilege of knowing both men when they were still alive back in the 1980s, by which time they had become venerable professors in UP. In 1951, Ingles was only 22, Epistola 26, young bucks who were already rendering literary judgment on their peers and seniors (such as Ingles’ estimation of Zoilo Galang, our first novelist in English (Child of Sorrow, 1921) of whom he writes: “The other novel (of 1950) was For Dreams Must Die by Zoilo Galang, who blundered into the literary scene. Galang was a romantic novelist of the 1920s. His mushy prose dates farther back….” That pungent style of commentary was apparently the order of the day, as elsewhere in the issue we find Homero Ch. Veloso, touted to be “UP’s most renowned poet of the past decade,” being hacked at the knees by the expatriate Jose Garcia Villa, who writes that “I think he is completely valueless; however serious he was in his esthetic and intellectual life, his writing is utterly inchoate, unformed, and ill-written….”

But what really caught my eye in this issue (where also, incidentally, Villa’s “The Bashful One” appears, among other, uhm, essentially wordless poems) was a report on the recent visit to Manila of Wallace Stegner, who had been brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation in January 1951 to deliver eight lectures, one of which touched on his impressions of Filipino writing (but only in English, of course).

Very few people, even among writers, would recognize the name these days, but Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was a renowned American novelist who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. His name rang a bell because of two things. First, starting in 1946, Stanford University has offered the two-year Stegner Fellowship in creative writing, among the world’s prize fellowships for writers, whose recipients have included at least three Filipinos: the poets Valdemar Olaguer (1950) and Fidelito Cortes (1985) and the Fil-Am fictionist Lysley Tenorio (2000). Second, as luck would have it, I actually met Stegner when he visited my graduate writing class at the University of Michigan in October 1986; sadly I don’t remember much of that visit beyond an old man in a tan overcoat, as our classes had barely begun and I was still dizzy with loneliness and awe. 

Stegner’s 1951 sortie to Manila also fell in between visits by two other notable writers from America. The first was Ernest Hemingway, who came twice in 1941, in February and May, on his way to and from China with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. I received a note last month from my friend and fellow history buff in Washington, Erwin Tiongson, who found a report from The Tribune of May 13, 1941 about Hemingway being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated P500 to a fund for the victims.

Another prominent visitor was William Faulkner, who came to Manila in 1955. I recall a small poster commemorating that visit on the wall of the UPICW in the old Faculty Center before it burned down. There are records of what Faulkner did and said then—elsewhere, so I still have to find them. In the library of Stanford University is an 18-page illustrated document from 1956 published by the Philippine Writers Association titled “Faulkner on Truth and Freedom. Excerpts from tape recordings of remarks made by William Faulkner during his recent Manila visit,” but it’s only available on-site. More tantalizingly, there’s an article titled “Faulkner in Manila—1955” in Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 edited by James Meriweather and published by Random House in 1968.

So what did Wallace Stegner have to say to his Filipino audience in 1951? He deplored the lack of novelists, for one thing. “The situation is understandable because writing a novel requires the investment of about a year’s labor, the loss of productive activity in other directions, and an attendant publishing risk,” noted the article, which went on: “The Filipino short story, Dr. Stegner observed, is more on the side of the sketch: it is a slice or cross-section rather than a well-rounded whole. Sometimes the story ends; sometimes it just stops…. The Filipino writer rushes to print because he has no other alternative. He gets published easily, even on the second draft, and gets paid just the same. The result is an early sense of maturity which deceives the writer: there is nothing more to test him, to give him obstacles to get over and sharpen his writing ability. Thus, currently published stories need to be run ten times more through the typewriter to straighten out the diction and the style, to fill out the sketchiness, to clarify the characters and the moods, to smooth out all the things that make a short story.”

Funny, I thought, finding that in a 70-year-old journal, when I’d been telling my students the same thing.

Penman No. 381: The Best of New Writing in English

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Penman for Monday, February 17, 2020

 

ONE OF the things we’ve been proudest of doing at the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) has been to encourage new writers in both Filipino and English—whether through workshops, grants, or publishing opportunities. Sometimes all writers really need is a bit of recognition from their masters and their peers, some formal acknowledgment of their talent to spur them on in a career with few rewards beyond the smiles and the sighs of their readers.

For nearly two decades now, thanks to the generosity of Atty. Gizela M. Gonzalez, herself a gifted writer, the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award has honored its self-described winners—the best first publication in book form by a writer in Filipino or English for the past two years (alternating between the two languages every other year). A cash prize of P50,000 accompanies the award. Entries are submitted by publishers, for whom victory lies in discovering the next new literary star. It’s a safe bet: previous winners have included such luminaries as Sarge Lacuesta, Luna Sicat Cleto, Ichi Batacan, and Kristian Cordero, among others.

The 19th MGBFBA was given out at Writers Night last December in UP. I was in Singapore for another ceremony but was very interested in who would win (a surprisingly well-kept secret that even UPICW fellows are not privy to until the night itself). Only later did I hear, happily, that the winner was a former student of mine, Glenn Diaz, for his novel The Quiet Ones (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2018), described by the judges as “a tour de force, an awesome game of fictional juggling, mastering multiple narratives that cascade, skim and collide, leaving the reader breathless, wondering if that was a whodunit, a philosophical foray into globalization, or a poignant story of love.” Well done, Glenn! But let’s give a shout out for the other finalists as well.

Jude Ortega’s Seekers of Spirits (UP Press, 2017) “opens up to readers a world of spirits, ancestral yet ever present, unseen yet all too powerful. They are constantly in the lives of humans, offering succor or malice. Yet, these stories suggest that, whatever power these spirits possess, no terror may be worse than that we inflict upon each other.”

Manuel Lahoz’s autobiographical Of Tyrants and Martyrs: A Political Memoir (UP Press, 2018) is “a riveting political memoirof martial law in the Philippines and its many victims… a record of Lahoz’s own apotheosis from priest to social activist to political prisoner and participant in the political underground. In his personal transformation we sense as well the coming of age of an entire generation.”

 Francis Quina’s Field of Play and Other Fictions (Visprint, 2018) displays “the sensibility of a poet as well as the rigor of the literary scholar and writing teacher. He seeks to dissect both the intricacies of the human heart and the manner by which these are re-enacted in art. His is a new, vibrant voice in fiction.”

Christine Lao’s Musical Chairs (2017) is a “small and compact chapbook… (of) stories in the way they were first invented: as lore, as fable, as stories of good and evil but, in this collection, rendered with the complexity of the modern world.”

Johanna Michelle Lim’s What Distance Tells Us: Travel Essays About the Philippines (Bathalad, 2018) covers “twelve Philippine destinations, from Batanes to Sitangkai, from Sagada to Siargao… (and) lures us with language, entices us into the territories of enchantment not always of the exotic but also the local and commonplace. In these peregrinations… she evolves en route: in the various guises of the traveler, artist, and activist she aspires to be, but also the one she was never ready for.”

Sarah Fernando Lumba’s The Shoemaker’s Daughter (Visprint, 2018) consists of “tightly woven tales, narratives sewn together with the deliberate shoemaker’s art, with the rough edges shaved off as if with a leather skiver—these are what make The Shoemaker’s Daughter an important contribution to new Filipino fiction…. (They) take us through Marikina shoemakers’ country, with its achingly familiar small-town complexion and its river changing from a benign periodic visitor to an existential threat.”

Marichelle Roque-Lutz’s Keeping It Together (Roque-Lutz Publishing, 2018) “traverses what might be called an intercontinental trampoline that stretches from Manila to Nigeria and America, which need not be only geographic because the memoirist from the start is a soul-in-search, ever moving through time and into herself. Most memoirs are helped by faithfully kept journals. Keeping It Together is directly helped by a copious streaming from the heart, a first book by an able and polished author, a fully evolved, mature soul.”

It was a strong batch, all told, which can only bode well for the future of creative writing in English in the Philippines, fraught as it has always been with political and aesthetic challenges. As the late NVM Gonzalez used to put it, “I write in Filipino, using English”—a formula that seems to be working just fine.

Penman No. 377: A Harvest of Singaporean Fiction

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Penman for Monday, December 23, 2019

 

WRITING ABOUT Singaporean short fiction in the Malaysian literary journal Tenggara in 1990, the highly respected Singaporean poet and teacher Robert Yeo observed of his country’s short story writers that “They prefer the relative safety of naturalism or realism and have learned to construct the short story in terms of traditional ways of having a well-defined plot, a single moment, clear characterization, and a resolute or indeterminate end. There are no innovative tales like the surrealism of Franz Kafka, the magical realism of Marquez or the labyrinthine mazes of Borges, writers who have responded to the urgings of their personal visions of the worlds they inhabit and make….” At the same time he remained optimistic, and opined that as poets had lorded it over the previous decades, the time for fictionists had come.

Prof. Yeo’s self-criticism reminded me that, years earlier, I spotted a remark in the introduction to an anthology of Singaporean short stories that Singaporean writers had much to learn from their Filipino counterparts, who had explored the territory with both talent and audacity.

Two weeks ago, as I attended the awarding ceremonies of the Golden Point Award at the National Library of Singapore, I reflected on those comments and was happy to conclude, on my hosts’ behalf, that those days of cautious apprenticeship were over: Singaporean fiction had fully come of age. Indeed perhaps it had done that much earlier than I had noticed, but this time I was staring it in the face, in the form of the superlative pieces that won prizes in the GPA competition.

Begun by the National Arts Council in 1993—perhaps precisely to encourage the risk-taking and innovation that Robert seemed to be missing—the Golden Point Award is Singapore’s biennial version of our much older and broader Palancas, focused on discovering and encouraging new writers in Singapore’s four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) in the poetry and short story categories. I was the sole international judge in the English short story, a task and privilege I shared with two distinguished Singaporean writers, Meira Chand and Balli Kaur Jaswal (who had also been a David TK Wong Fellow at Norwich, and who lived for some time in Manila).

The judging that we did online over several weeks was exciting but exhausting. Of the 1,200 entries submitted this year to the GPA in all categories, more than half went to the English short story. We plodded patiently through the digital pile, and were pleasantly surprised to find, when we finally met in Singapore for the final deliberation, that our top-six shortlists were practically the same, save for one or two pieces.

The stories submitted covered an astonishing and also very revealing range of themes and concerns that created (especially for me, as an outsider looking in) a comprehensive image of Singaporean society today. They included the following, in no particular order: migrant workers; Chinese grandparents; filial piety; competition and conformity; the generation gap; Western education, the English language (Oxbridge and British accents), and social status; arranged marriages; racial disharmony; sexual liberation; Singaporean history and nationhood; the Singaporean future; utopia and dystopia.

Addressing Robert Yeo’s earlier plaint, the entries also came in full range of genres, from realism to fantasy and science fiction, horror, young adult, even erotica.

In my judging, I looked for the human in the Singaporean, and the Singaporean in the human. While it may not have been explicitly stated in the rules, I tried to see how the works represented both contemporary Singaporean society and also the state of writing in Singapore.

The best stories for me displayed complexity, subtlety, intimacy, and insight; they had a palpable narrative and emotional impact, and took their time to develop their tensions and arrive at their subliminally earned conclusions. I was especially taken by our second-prize winner, “Little Fears” by Lauren Ho, which drew on the tension between a Singaporean mother and her Filipino nanny, who had clearly won over her child’s affections.

The least successful ones bore many of the hallmarks of amateurs, which I see often enough in our own workshops and the Palancas: a plethora of literary quotes and allusions, hurried summaries of situations, essayistic discussions of their subjects, revelatory titles, one-dimensional characterizations, and predictable plots.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of all participants—the courage of writing and submitting a story for judgment—should be commended, as I could sense that the GPA was as much about encouraging effort and expression as it was about recognizing excellence.

At the awards ceremony, I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Singaporean publisher Edmund Wee, whose Epigram (epigrambooks.sg) imprint has been championing local literature and writers. Now Edmund is looking beyond Singapore itself for the best new works by sponsoring the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which offers the largest prize money in the Singaporean—indeed Southeast Asian—literary circuit: S$25,000 (about P933,000) plus a publishing contract; three other shortlisted finalists will get S$5,000 and a publishing contract. Starting this year, the competition was opened to ASEAN authors, and Edmund made a point of asking me to encourage more Filipinos to join. The next deadline will be in August 2020, with the winner to be announced the following January. Check out their website, folks.

With incentives like the GPA and the Epigram Prize, Prof. Yeo can rest assured that Singaporean fiction will be alive and well for many decades to come.

 

Penman No. 373: Another Jewel in the the Shadows

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Penman for Monday, October 28, 2019

 

AT A dinner last week with friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan—an old haunt of mine, having done my master’s there more than thirty years ago—the talk came around to finding and retrieving valuable Filipiniana from the United States and wherever these precious objects—books, paintings, and other artifacts—may have been buried for the past century. I shared the story of how the oldest book in my small antiquarian collection—a book of English essays from 1551, published in London—turned up in Cubao, Quezon City, after having been gifted to its Pinoy owner who was a caregiver in Paris.

That discussion, in turn, reminded me of another interesting message I’d received a month earlier from a reader named Wassily Clavecillas, with whom I’d been exchanging notes about our shared interests (he also supplied me with information about the long-forgotten painter Anselmo Espiritu, whom I wrote about last July). With his permission, I’ll share a slightly edited version of Wassily’s message, which illustrates how literary and historical jewels can still emerge from the shadows:

“Professor, let me tell you about a book entitled Ataque de Li-Ma-Hong a Manila en 1574 by the Spanish writer Juan Caro y Mora, printed in 1898 in Manila. The item was the only Filipiniana object in the lot of Orientalia bequeathed to my aunt by her then employer/patron, who came from an affluent family in California.

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“Encompassing roughly 155 pages, the book is interspersed with artfully crafted vignettes, landscapes, and battle scenery depicting the invasion of Manila by the infamous Chinese pirate Li Ma Hong—an event whose 445th anniversary will fall this November 29. The illustrator was none other than Vicente Mir Rivera, the Filipino Gilded Age artist, a contemporary of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Lorenzo Guerrero, and the brothers Manuel and Anselmo Espiritu. Though not as celebrated as Luna or Hidalgo, Rivera was an important artist and artisan, who also designed with lavish attention to detail the canonical crowns of the Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario, which was executed by the jewelers La Estrella del Norte.

“The illustrations were rendered mostly in watercolor and presumably perished in the fires of war-ravaged Manila in WWII. What we have left, though not originals, are no less beautiful in their form, abounding in visions of verdant Filipino landscapes and seascapes, complemented with renderings of intrepid Spanish soldiers, fierce Chinese corsairs, and valiant Filipino warriors.

“The book was effectively a historical record of Spain’s erstwhile military and martial glories. This is the second edition of Juan Caro y Mora’s tome; a much rarer first edition was never sold but was given to subscribers of the author’s newspaper La Voz Española, which Mora edited.”

Wassily goes on further to say that the book was included in a lot of various Oriental antiques and ephemeras, mostly Japanese netsuke, fine silk scroll paintings, Qing dynasty jade and porcelain figurines, and numerous 19th-century travel books on Asia, which once adorned the richly decorated anterooms of a sprawling California estate.

Bequeathed to his aunt by her employer, for sentimental reasons she never sold this bounty and had the items packed and concealed away in her other home in another state in the US, where the collection remained safe, dormant but not forgotten. Some time ago she decided to go through all the contents again it was then that she found the book.

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Upon further scrutiny,” Wasily reports further, “I was excited to realize that Juan Caro y Mora had inscribed and dedicated the book to his Excellency Governor-General Fermin Jaudenes, the third-to-the-last Spanish-appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. Jaudenes was known for his role in the infamous ‘Mock Battle of Manila,’ where the collapsing Spanish forces orchestrated with the American occupiers the surrender of the City of Manila, to salvage the reputation of Imperial Spain and deny the Filipinos their hard-fought victory.

“One can only speculate if the book was given by the author as a morale booster to the embattled Governor General during what many consider as the death knell of Spain’s empire. The surrender of Manila it heralded the end of 300 years of European rule over the archipelago and marked the beginning of 50 years of Pax Americana.”

Many thanks, Wassily, for your account and perceptive commentary. I’ve never seen or even known about this book myself, of course, but it reinforces my conviction that many more treasures remain hidden out there, in some American or European attic or garage.

Over the past year, I’ve built up a small trove myself of old Filipiniana awaiting repatriation at my daughter’s place in California—multiple copies each of such popular staples as Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, Atlas de Filipinas, and Our Islands and Their People, as well as another first edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn. They may not be quite as exotic as Limahong’s story, or have such a splendorous provenance, but I hope to bring them home soon to spark wonder and delight in more Filipino eyes.