Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

James_Scott_collage.jpegPenman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 338: Back to Balangiga

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Penman for Monday, January 28, 2019

 

THE RECENT return of the fabled bells of Balangiga from the American West to their home in Samar reminded me of my fleeting involvement years ago in the effort to draw renewed attention to that traumatic episode of the Philippine-American War.

Sometime in 2001, the late film director Gil Portes called to ask me to work with him on a project that would focus on what people—echoing the American view—were then calling the “Balangiga massacre,” culminating of course in the loss of the bells (hardly the event’s most tragic outcome, considering the slaughter of innocents that the Americans undertook in the attack’s aftermath).

I suppose we were still basking in the afterglow of the Philippine Centennial, and directors were eager to take on historical subjects, long before Heneral Luna would prove that history artfully told could do well at the box office. In fact, our project ran alongside a similar one being put together by the formidable tandem of director Chito Roño and screenwriter Pete Lacaba. (Pete and I were good friends and knew what the other was doing.) The main difference was that our version was going to be a Filipino-American co-production, with the script in English, for a global audience.

I can’t recall now who our producer was, but I knew that Gil was in conversation with US-based financiers, and I did get a down payment for the sequence treatment and the script itself, so we were seriously engaged in the project—seriously enough that Gil and I went on a reconnaissance visit to Balangiga.

Balangiga is a small fourth-class municipality in Eastern Samar, reachable by surprisingly good roads (at least that long ago) from Tacloban across the San Juanico Bridge and past Basey. When we went there, we were billeted in the only “hotel” in town, where the rooms cost P100 a night and I tried to read my notes under a 10-watt lamp. But we were able to find and interview the descendants of Valeriano “Bale” Abanador, the town’s chief of police who led the attack in retaliation against American repression. I was even shown the wooden stick that Abanador was supposed to have waved as a signal to begin the attack that morning of September 28, 1901.

Sadly, after all the research and three drafts of the script, and despite rumors that Sony was going to be involved and that the likes of John Malkovich were being considered for the lead roles, our project fell through, as did the other one. One reason I heard was that in the wake of 9/11, it was proving difficult to bring a battalion of American actors over. Years later, Gil asked me for a copy of the script, thinking to revive the project, but then Gil himself died suddenly two years ago.

I don’t pretend to be a Balangiga expert, although I drew heavily on the writings of such real Balangiga scholars as UP Prof. Rolando Borrinaga and writer Bob Couttie, who have sorted much of the fiction from the facts of the event. I did fictionalize my treatment, as I was expected to do for dramatic purposes, without altering the basic facts as they were known to me. My chief conceit was to create a character named Ramon Candilosas, the fictional son of the bell ringer Vicente, who was a teenager when the attack happened.

My treatment opened this way:

SEQ. 1. Intro. EXT/INT. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Day.

 An old man, around 70, walks across the yard in Fort Warren, Wyoming, to where they keep the Balangiga bells. He pauses before one of them, takes off his hat, and reaches out with a trembling hand to touch one of the bells.

 Later, we see him signing his name with a scratchy fountain pen on a guestbook; a CLOSE-UP reveals his name: RAMON CANDILOSAS. “I do not know everything,” his voice begins to intone. “This is only what my father told me, and what I imagine to have happened in our hometown, in a war over a hundred years ago. It is a war we have forgotten, a war we find difficult if not impossible to believe.”

 Indeed, as I often remark to my American friends, I can understand if few Americans remember the Philippine-American War (downplayed for the longest time in American annals as the Philippine Insurrection). What’s sad is how few Filipinos do. At least writers like the US-based Gina Apostol are reviving that memory through her most recent and highly acclaimed novel Insurrecto, a complex and contemporary take on that century-old event.

But I’m glad for history’s sake that the bells are back, and that, for once, the fact has overtaken the fiction.

Penman No. 334: A Literary Yearender

 

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Penman for Monday, December 31, 2018

 

TWO BIG events rounded out the literary year for me, both of them related in some way to the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), which not incidentally marked the 40th anniversary of its founding earlier this month.

The first was Writers Night last November 23, effectively an annual reunion and pre-Christmas party of the Filipino literary community. But more than a social bash, Writers Night also marks two important points on the literary calendar: the announcement of the winner of the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award (given in alternating years to books in Filipino and English) and the launch of the latest issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature.

Now on its 18thyear, the MGBFBA’s awarding is highly anticipated, not just because of the P50,000 cash prize but also because, miraculously, the UPICW has done a pretty good job of keeping the winner’s name secret until the proverbial opening of the envelope itself. This year’s winner was Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa, published by Adarna Books, which went on to win a National Book Award the very next day.

Rappler’s Margie de Leon describes the work thus: “The first few pages alone of komikera Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa will take your breath away. Depicting local mythology’s creation of the universe, each page is a luscious spread of lively lines and bold colors….The next chapters are a narrative feat, interspersing short stories between pairs of Filipinos and the geological birth of the nation. The tangled tales between each pair of characters serve to personify the actual physical shifts that occurred in our geography millennia ago.”

The second highlight of Writers Night was the launch of the Likhaan Journal, and this year being a milestone, we launched not one but two issues—the regular journal containing 20 of the year’s best and previously unpublished works in Filipino and English, and a similar collection, edited by me, which we called 40@40, featuring new works by our top writers in Filipino and English—the difference being that the 40@40 writers all had some connection to the UPICW as former fellows, panelists, or members of the board.

As I noted in my introduction to the volume, when the UP Creative Writing Center was set up in December 1978, the country was firmly in the grip of martial law, which had been declared in 1972 and six years later had settled into a certain stability, or at least the appearance thereof, buttressed by new governmental institutions such as the Batasang Pambansa, the Ministry of Human Settlements, the Ministry of Public Information, and the National Media Production Center.

Martial law—particularly martial law of “the smiling kind” that the Palace liked to tout—had to create its own fictions, chiefly that Filipinos were free to express themselves and that Philippine culture and literature could find no better sponsor than the present regime, which had after all established the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. The establishment of the UPCWC—which became the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) in 2002—may have been part of that liberal façade, the notion that all was well in the New Society. It began as a small office where university-based writers and their friends converged for spirited chats over smuggled beer and gin (itself an act of subversion, as the university banned such libations), with no defined function graver than running the annual Writers Workshop and the occasional lecture or forum.

But over the years, and especially over the decades after the overthrow of the dictatorship at EDSA, the UPICW has grown into a truly writer- and university-driven institution, overseeing mid-career and novice writers workshops as well as seminars for teachers and translators, running an online portal to Philippine literature at Panitikan.com, conducting outreach programs, representing Philippine writing overseas, and encouraging writing in other Philippine languages beyond Filipino and English.

Even within UP, not too many Filipinos seem to appreciate the fact that the UPICW is a trailblazer and a leader in the region, indeed in all of Asia, in terms of what it does.

This proved true again in 2018’s last big literary event, the annual gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators held December 5-7 at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia. A contingent of seven Filipinos, most of them affiliated with the UPICW, represented the Philippines—possibly the largest national contingent aside from the Australians themselves.

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APWT is the region’s largest and most active literary network, and we hosted its annual conference in 2015. I sit on its advisory board, and I was accompanied in Australia by UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, writers Vlad Gonzales, Luna Sicat Cleto, Marby Villaceran, and Deedle Tomlinson, and my wife Beng. We held a very well attended panel discussion on Philippine literature, which remains a mystery to many of our neighbors who belong to the Commonwealth loop. APWT will move to Macau in 2019, and we expect an even stronger Philippine presence there.

 

Penman No. 326: A Season of Winners

Cafe.jpgPenman for Monday, November 5, 2018

 

UNEXPECTEDLY, OCTOBER turned out to be a season of winners, with a series of important awards being announced involving culture and the arts.

Foremost, of course, were the National Artist Awards, eagerly anticipated by the cultural community every two years or so. Dismayed as I was by the Palace’s decision to drop Nora Aunor (and even more by the silly excuse they gave for doing so—I’m reasonably sure I can live with the agony and torment if they went nuts and named me a National Artist, which I would shyly accept), the rest of the list pretty much got a pass from the arts community, as far as I could tell.

I was especially happy to see old friends and acquaintances like Amel Bonifacio, Resil Mojares, Kidlat Tahimik, and Ryan Cayabyab on the list, people whose work I’ve known and respected for a long time. And not to take the shine off any of the winners, but I was also sad to find, once again, that my personal bets for this highest of creative honors—among them the poet Jimmy Abad and the artists Junyee and Jaime de Guzman—would have to wait for yet another round. Having been involved to some minor degree in the search process for previous NAs, I know that more visibility for the artist helps, and we’ll work on it next time.

But there was plenty of recognition to go around last month, albeit on a more local scale.

For the past six years, I’ve been privileged to serve on the Selection Committee of Quezon City’s Manuel L. Quezon Gawad Parangal for Outstanding Citizens and Institutions. It’s a task I’ve shared with former Budget Minister and City Administrator Manny Alba, former UP President Emer Roman, former QC councilor Bert Galarpe, lawyer Vicky Loanzon, and former QC Vice Mayor Connie Angeles.

There’s never any shortage of achievers from Quezon City to acknowledge in whatever field, from politics, education, and business to the arts, media, and entertainment. This year, in ceremonies last October 12, I was delighted to greet some friends among the awardees. (I assure you our friendship had nothing to do with their recognition, impeccably supported by the evidence.)

Among them was the engineer and educator Rey Vea, who belonged to the mythical first batch of the Philippine Science High School, two years ahead of me; we worked together in the UP Collegian, were arrested within a day of each other under martial law, and flew to the US in the same batch of Fulbright study grantees. Rey went on to become dean of the UP College of Engineering, administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority, and president of Mapua University.

Another outstanding QC citizen honored was the poet, editor, and screenwriter Jose “Pete” Lacaba, one of those colleagues I deeply admire as much for his craft as for his dedication to it. Like his own hero Nick Joaquin with whom he worked, Pete never drew a line between journalism and creative writing, and produced first-rate results with whatever he put his mind to. A few years older than me and a Pateros boy, Pete hung out in the same Rizal Provincial Library that I spent many an afternoon in back in the mid-1960s. We later both wrote scripts for Lino Brocka, along with Ricky Lee and Joey Reyes, and the joke among us was that Pete got all the best, long-gestating projects like Jaguar and Bayan Ko because he also wrote the slowest.

And this is as good a time as any to congratulate my fellow STAR columnist and another good friend, the writer and entrepreneur Wilson Lee Flores, whom you’ll find smiling even in the most difficult circumstances, such as when the 79-year-old Kamuning Bakery that he had almost singlehandedly revived burned down last February. The bakery itself had won the same award last year for its artisanal bread, but our committee thought that the proprietor—also a three-time Palanca laureate—deserved one on his own.

In the institutional category, my loudest cheers went to Ma Mon Luk, the iconic house of noodles I’ve patronized since I was a boy and whose owner George Ma Mon Luk is a fellow fountain pen and typewriter collector, and the Erehwon Art Center, which its founder and patron Raffy Benitez has tirelessly guided within a few short years to becoming one of the city’s true cultural oases, virtually a mini-CCP that has projected the best of Philippine art both here and overseas.

And I can’t let this review pass without mentioning the Palanca Awards for Literature, which for the first time in its 68-year-long history held its Awards Night this year in October instead of the customary September 1. Among the winners was a neurosurgeon named Ron Baticulon who had nursed a dream of writing well enough to win a Palanca, which his work “Sometimes You Can’t Save Them All” did, for Second Prize in the Essay in English category. The piece is a powerful and moving account of a young doctor’s encounters with the families of the dying, and of the humanity that asserts itself in the bleakest of situations. I’m looking forward to the release of Ron’s first book from the UP Press early next year.

To them and all the other winners from last month’s derbies, my warmest congratulations.

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Penman No. 319: A Priceless Literary Treasure

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Penman for Monday, September 17, 2018

 

SINCE I seriously got into antiquarian book collecting not too long ago, I’ve picked up quite a few books that have required the services of a professional book restorer. Surprisingly for most people (but not to bibliophiles who know the history of papermaking and publishing), the books most in need of help often turn out to be the newer ones—and by “newer” I mean a hundred years old or so, books published in the early to mid-1900s.

My oldest book dates back to 1551, an abridged volume in English on the history of institutions. I found it in, of all places, Cubao via an OFW who received it from her employer in Paris and sent it on to her son, who thankfully for me had little use for it and advertised it online. It’s amazingly robust for its age, still tightly bound in its original leather covers, the paper crisp and the printing sharp and clear, annotated here and there by the hand of its various owners down the centuries. (I was tempted, but I didn’t dare inscribe my name on it.)

That’s also true for relatively more recent books from the 1700s and 1800s, some of which look and feel like they rolled off the press yesterday. (I first fell in love with old books as a graduate student of Renaissance drama at the University of Michigan, which kept books from the 1600s on the regular shelves of the library, fascinating me with the stiffness of their paper and the tactile feedback of the letters). I often treat visitors to my office with a whiff of centuries past, ruffling the pages of, say, a Jesuit history from 1706 beneath their noses.

But books from the 1900s and later typically turn yellow and crumbly. The culprit, of course, is the acid that forms in modern, wood-based paper because of a number of both internal and external factors.

This was certainly true of a recent batch of books that I got back from my favorite book restorer (who shall remain unnamed for now lest she be deluged with requests, given that she has a full-time day job to mind). They included no book older than 1853 (a coverless edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines) and 1860 (a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, which I didn’t even realize was a first edition until I noted the bookseller’s penciled notation 20 years after I’d bought it).

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The prize in the pile was a thick clothbound book titled Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, Vol. 1 (Manila: J.S. Agustin & Sons, 1924). The volume is a compilation of smaller books from the 1920s to the 1930s, put together by the legendary professor and anthologist Dean Leopoldo Y. Yabes (1912-1986), who was scarcely in his twenties when he assembled and bound this compendium (signed “Bibliotheque Particuliere de Leopoldo Y. Yabes No. 118).

It’s an outstandingly rare collection, because it contains the only extant copy, as far as we know, of Rodolfo Dato’s landmark Filipino Poetry—the first major collection of Filipino poems in English. In the florid prose typical of the time, Dato prefaces his book by describing it as “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language,” acknowledging that “the full flowering of our poetic art has not yet come, but the fertile field smiles abundant growth and gives promise of a rich and bountiful harvest in a day not far distant.” In various pieces rhymed and metered, writers like Maximo M. Kalaw, Fernando Maramag, Procopio Solidum, and Maria Agoncillo give praise to mayas, moonlight, sampaguitas, and Motherland.

I had long been searching for the Dato book in the usual places online, for naught; but one day, at a committee meeting, my dear friend Jimmy Abad—the poet and anthologist—slipped it over to me, with the note “Priceless!” And indeed it was. Dean Yabes had gifted it to Prof. Abad, who was now passing it on to me in that timeless ritual that exalts and humbles writers and teachers who know exactly what they are receiving.

The compendium also contains an English-German Anthology of Filipino Poets  translated and edited by Pablo Laslo, with a preface by Salvador P. Lopez (Libreria Manila Filatelica, 1934); Dear Devices, Being a First Volume of Familiar Essays in Englishby Certain Filipinos (N. p., 1933); and the 1935 Quill, the Literary Yearbook of the University of Sto. Tomas, edited by Narciso G. Reyes. I’ll say more about these other seminal works later, as they’re truly invaluable glimpses into our earliest impulses as writers in English (and I have to wonder, if this was just Vol. 1, what Vol. 2 was like, if any).

Friendship aside, Jimmy must also have known that I was in a better position to take care of the volume, whose first 80 pages or so—almost the entire Dato book—had been torn, not just detached, from the spine by that infernal chemistry I described earlier. So I sent it to my restorer, who patiently mended each torn and fragile page with Japanese paper. Like my other jewels, this book will find its way to the UP Library at some point, now renewed for another generation of readers and scholars.

 

Penman No. 318: Mysteries of Fish

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Penman for Monday, September 10, 2018

 

I’VE OFTEN written and spoken about how—despite the fact that we inhabit an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, bordered on all sides by the sea, and comprising one of the longest coastlines in the world—we seem to have very little by way of a maritime literature. By this I mean novels, stories, poems, and plays that have the sea as a central element, beyond serving as a romantic backdrop.

There’s a whole economy and culture to be found in our relationship with the sea, but much of this has been lost to a metropolitan generation bred on canned tuna and Starbucks coffee. Even among my students, I can count on my fingers the number of people who’ve taken a boat ride longer than a spin around a lake or the short hop from Caticlan to Boracay.

I myself was born in a house a stone’s throw from the beach, in a village on an island far from Manila, so the sea has never been far from my mind and imagination. I dream about it constantly, with recurrent images of huge waves rolling and breaking on the shore, and I as a boy walking on the sand with my father, now long gone.

But I too have to admit that save for a few scenes and the opening chapter of my novel in progress, the sea has figured minimally in my fiction. That’s probably because I feel responsible for creating credible characters whose lives are inextricably waterbound, and haven’t felt confident enough to do justice to the task. The fact is, we’ve lost touch with our marine heritage, which is supremely ironic given how Filipinos have distinguished themselves as seafarers, and how many Filipinos depend on the sea for a living.

This was much on my mind two weeks ago when I flew to Iloilo to attend the formal investiture of Dr. Ricardo P. Babaran as the tenth Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Visayas. A fisheries expert and nautical engineer, Ric recounted how, as a young boy far up north in Cagayan, he enjoyed going out to sea and to the river to fish.

“My fishing buddies generally used earthworms as bait, but they sometimes used live crickets using different fishing gear. As a young fisher, I observed that using either crickets or earthworms yielded different outcomes—certain fish seemed to prefer one or the other—but my fisher friends were never able to explain to me why. This mystery bothered me for a long time,” he told us.

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Ric left Cagayan to study Fisheries in UP Diliman, and had to deal with the derision of other people who wondered “why Fisheries students needed four years just to learn how to capture fish with hook and line.” Even now, he says, this misappreciation of Fisheries partly explains why “fish-based industries are faring poorly in the Philippines.” (Indeed, an economist I know has pointed out that the recent spike in prices can be traced to some degree to a shortage of fish.)

Ric went on to take an MS in naval architecture and ocean engineering at the University of Washington, and then his PhD in Fisheries Science at Kagoshima University. It was in Japan where, Ric says, he finally found the answer to his childhood mystery: “I learned that catfish and mudfish responded differently to earthworms and crickets because of a process called chemo-reception.”

Dr. Babaran’s investiture was attended by many guests, including many academic officials and luminaries, but several of them stood out, for different reasons. Among them was Dr.  Loel Losanes, a UPV alumnus and the Filipino head of Japan’s Hikari Corporation, probably the largest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

Just as significant was the presence of members of the Kamamado fishers group from Guimaras, many of them elderly women who, Ric noted, “supplement their daily income with the P40 they get from selling the equivalent of two-liter-sized containers of captured cardinal fish. Through this group, we will undertake a program that will promote responsible fisheries, which I believe will position the Philippines more strategically in the relation to the ornamental fish industry that generates $7 to 8 billion annually.”

I’m confident that the programs of Chancellor Babaran and UPV will improve the livelihoods of millions of our shore-dwelling countrymen, but I’m even more hopeful that a deeper and broader awareness of the importance of the sea in our lives will soon emerge, if only because of the crisis now roiling in the waters around us. (“About a third of our fish catch comes from the West Philippine Sea,” Ric told me.)

And I’m especially happy that a place like UPV exists to mind our waters. A young PhD in UPV, Noel Ferriols, recalled how he was convinced to study in UPV instead of Manila when he and his mother visited the campus in Miag-ao, which specializes in fisheries. “I was amazed when the security guard told me the scientific name of a certain kind of fish,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, if this is a place where even security guards can recite the genus and species of a fish, then it’s where I want to be.”

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 315: A Qwerty Quartet

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Penman for Monday, August 13, 2018

 

I’M NOT really a typewriter collector (not like my friend George Mamonluk, whose noodles I patronize to help build up his stable of vintage typewriters and fountain pens), but I realized this past week that I can’t resist a classic when I see one, even when I can barely squeeze it into the budget or, just as critically, into my man-cave.

Surely space and money aren’t foremost on the minds of such fanatics as the 4,677 members of the Antique Typewriter Collectors FB Group—not to mention Tom Hanks, who is to typewriters what Jay Leno is to cars. In fact, Tom—who has hundreds of the machines, including his dad’s Underwood—recently wrote a collection of short stories, published under the title Uncommon Type (Alfred Knopf, 2017, 405 pp.) in which a typewriter appears in every story, and he provided the foreword to the collector’s must-have, Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing (Chronicle Books, 2017, 208 pp.)

I’m not quite there yet; I just have four typewriters hanging around—but what a Qwerty quartet they make. I haven’t really used one for everyday writing since the late 1980s, when I began the draft of my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, on an Olympia Traveller that I’d carried with me to grad school in the US. I began using computers around 1992 and never looked back. But I’ve never lost my fascination for these mechanical wonders, and even observed their sad demise in my July 11, 2011 column, “Requiem for the Typewriter,” in which I noted the shutdown of the last typewriter producer in the world, Godrej and Boyce, in India.

My oldest one is a black Corona 3 from 1922, and in many ways it’s also the most amazing, as it’s a portable whose carriage folds over its keyboard, and opens up like a clamshell. I remember spotting that Corona on the counter of an antiques mall in San Francisco; it had just arrived and hadn’t even been put on the shelves. When the manager flipped out the folding carriage, I was bewitched (here insert the Ping! of the carriage), paid the asking price, and hand-carried it home.

I also have another shiny black Royal “O” portable, which a check of the Royal typewriter database online shows was produced in 1937. I can’t recall where or from whom I bought this very handsome model, but it was one of two fine old machines that I brought back from the US, one of which I gave to my friend, the poet Isabel Banzon Mooney. When the UP Faculty Center burned down in April 2016, I thought mine had gone up in smoke in my office across Isabel’s as well—until, just a couple of weeks ago, I looked under my bed, and there it was!

The third of the lot is a pristine white Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a classic of the ‘80s and a clone of the one I’d brought with me to the US (a gift from my mentor Gerry Sicat), which had rusted away. I loved that portable so much that I always hankered for its replacement. I found this one on eBay, and had it shipped all the way from London; surprisingly, it arrived at my doorstep without a scratch, at minimal cost.

As you might have guessed, I’m leading up to a thesis here, which is that these machines were meant to roost with me—particularly my most recent find, an Olivetti Valentine, a favorite of collectors and an icon of 20thcentury pop art. Designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King, this orange-red typewriter (released on Feb. 14, 1969, thus the name) looks like a narrow plastic wastebasket with a handle—until you flick two rubber clasps and pull out the portable within.

It’s well worth Googling to see the whole machine and case and to get the full story. Cynthia Trope of the Cooper Hewitt Museum explains its appeal thus: “Sottsass chose to use a bold Pop red plastic housing to show that the Valentine was intended more to appeal to writing for recreation rather than work. He said his design was ‘for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment. An anti-machine machine, built around the commonest mass-produced mechanism, the works inside any typewriter, it may also seem to be an unpretentious toy.’”

My friend and fellow Apple fanboy Leo Venezuela had told me about this unpretentious toy a few months ago, and it was burning a hole in my head (as it would in my pocket). I was this close to ordering one from Sweden, when one magically popped up late one night in a local online sales forum. So this late-sleeping bird caught the worm. “You’re lucky,” said the lady who handed it to me the next day. “I had twenty callers after you.” (Note to self: now sell a few old books and pens.)

If there are twenty people in this country who know what an Olivetti Valentine is, then I’m in trouble. That sounds like serious competition—but didn’t I say I wasn’t a serious collector, yet?

Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli and Fili are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines (Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.