Penman No. 445: Some Notes on Travel Writing

Penman for Sunday, December 4, 2022

I’M SURE you’ve noticed—with much envy in my case—how so many of your friends have been traipsing around the world these past few months on what’s been called “revenge travel,” that perfectly human impulse to flee the cage after years of imposed isolation. 

And whether you’re guzzling down a pint of beer in Munich, chasing pintxos in San Sebastian, or crossing a bridge in Kyoto, the chances are you’ll be happy with a raft of digital photographs to show for your adventures. Many will want to post about their tours on their blogs, while a much smaller group will—perhaps months later—sit down to reflect on their experience and write about it in an effort to make better sense of what they went through. 

That’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and so I thought of sharing some notes for the prospective travel writer—not just of the usual travel feature we produce for commercial media, but of a more personal kind of travel essay, one focused as much on the traveler as on the place itself. Beyond reportage citing facts and figures, this is writing that implicates and engages the traveler, the writing persona, and makes him or her a character in the piece. 

At my age, I consider myself a fairly well-traveled person, but one of the first things I want to say about good travel writing is that it’s really not about where you’ve gone or how many countries you’ve been to. It’s not about quantity, but quality of experience, perspective, and insight. The challenge isn’t to go to what to most Filipinos would be an exotic place like Paris or Tahiti. It’s to go there and to find and to tell us something about it that millions of other visitors or tourists have never seen.  

And when I say “something others have never seen,” it’s not about looking for obscure places, new bars, strange customs, or unique souvenirs. They could all be part of a great story because they’re intrinsically interesting, and if all you want to do is a standard feature story for a magazine, that would be all right. You could even make a good and exciting living writing these travel features, because the industry travel constantly needs them and they sell. 

For many of us, that would be a dream job: fly off to faraway destinations and to first-class hotels with all your expenses paid, just to write about how wonderful the place and the experience was. In my two decades as a columnist for the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Star, I was lucky to have had a taste of that kind of luxury, having been sent on special assignment to the US, Germany, Israel, and Malaysia, among many other places. When I traveled for academic or professional conferences, which was quite often, I wrote those up too as travel pieces.

But—putting on my creative writing teacher’s hat—I also want you to think of travel writing not just as a function of place, but rather a function of mind. I want you to realize that you don’t need to go to an African safari or to ride a gondola in Venice to be a good travel writer—or a good writer, period. I want you to be able to turn a place you may have been to a thousand times or even lived in—say, Cubao—into a travel destination, and to explore not just its surface but its culture and subcultures, its inhabitants, its range of markets, its daytime and nighttime versions.

There are always two tracks embedded in a good travel essay: the story of the place itself, and the story of the traveler. To put it another way, there is the external journey, and the internal journey. 

The external journey is the story of the journey itself—the purpose of the travel, the choice of destination, the mode of travel, observations along the journey, reaching the destination, first impressions, engagements with the local people, sights, food, experiences, and other vignettes until departure time. 

The internal journey is the story of the traveler’s life situation at the start of the travel—his or her expectations, anxieties, distractions—and then his or her reactions to the unfolding environment, his or her interactions with the place and people, and his or her terminal thoughts and feelings about the whole experience, whether explicitly stated or implied. Very often, the internal journey involves some kind of quest—a search for something beyond the place itself, or some object in it, but an answer to some personal question, which gives meaning to the visit and the encounter with the place. 

That question could be “Who am I?” or “Where do I belong?” or “What do I really want?” or “Is there hope?” As the travel progresses, the answers to these questions begin to be formed or revealed. Thus do the external and internal tracks run parallel or congruent until they bend and meet at a certain point. Indeed, it can be argued that the external track, the travelogue itself, is simply an excuse or a device to tell the personal story, which emerges as the true point of interest in the piece. 

The internal track could also be subtle and subdued, embedded in the main narrative, and palpable only upon closer reading. Nevertheless it will be there, the result of a place or an experience’s impact on a person. In the travel essay, therefore, it is the interaction between person and place and the insight that comes from it that is the real, unified story. 

As the great travel writer Pico Iyer put it, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

So when you write your next travel story or travel essay, don’t just tell us about what you’re looking at, which many thousands of visitors before you have already seen. Try to look at it from another angle, or find an interesting detail that’s been paid little attention to, and reflect on what it says to you. Your perspective is as important as the place itself; it may not be shown or expressed too strongly, but it will be there and should be there, for the work to be truly yours, truly unique, and truly worth doing. Happy trails!

Qwertyman No. 21: AI in the House

Qwertyman for Monday, December 26, 2022

I’D BEEN wanting to write about this for a long time, since last year when my artist-friends first alerted me to the amazing new possibilities being opened by artificial intelligence (AI) in such traditional fields as painting. Before that, like many people, I’d thought of AI in terms of subjects like warfare, medicine, and gaming. It had to be only a matter of time before the technology was ported over to the arts—not just to painting, but to creative writing and music, among other pursuits.

If you don’t know how AI works, just think of it this way (which is the way a lot of people, many of them not even artists, are having fun these days). You download a software program called an “AI generator” (such as starryai for painting, Rytr for creative writing, and AIVA for music), then put it to work by demanding that it produce “a portrait of Jose Rizal in the style of Van Gogh.” Minutes later (or just seconds if you pay), you’ll get what you asked for. What your computer (or in fact, many other computers working together) just did was to run a search for all the images of “Jose Rizal” it could find, then establish what “the style of Van Gogh” means in terms of brush strokes, colors, and so on, and apply one to the other. It’s all about “algorithms” or instruction sets that get sent out and executed until the desired outcome pops up.

That sounds like harmless entertainment, and much of AI is or appears to be, but it isn’t hard to see how even a touch of mischief (not to mention loads of malice) can quickly change the complexion of things. Driven by a fear of computing or what we might call Faustian science, popular culture is replete with examples of AI gone berserk, from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the master kidnapper Sark in Tron. But positive applications such as those employed in medicine, where AI helps analyze CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays with a sharper eye than a human radiologist sees with, continue to push AI research forward. IBM itself declares that “At this point, there is little doubt that AI will become a core part of the digital health systems that shape and support modern medicine.”

My own first brush with AI happened last week when I stumbled on an article in the New York Times titled “A New Chat Bot Is a ‘Code Red’ for Google’s Search Business.” Intrigued, I read on and found out about ChatGPT, one of many new programs that are threatening to replace Google’s famous search engine. We all know how Google works: you enter a search term, you get a long list of links to possible answers. Chat bots cut through that mess and give you a short, clear, grammatically correct answer (although nobody can guarantee that the answer itself is correct). That’s good if you want a quick reply to a question, but I can just imagine the epidemic of college term papers cutting and pasting unsourced chat-bot answers with gay abandon. 

All this led me to wonder how chat bots would respond to truly important questions, so I decided to download ChatGPT to my iPhone, and to ask it some test questions that would tell me about itself as much as what I was asking about. Below are my questions and the answers that artificial intelligence produced, verbatim (I purposely asked the first question to see if AI was capable of some kind of self-awareness):

1. Q. What are the dangers of artificial intelligence? A. 1. Unintended Consequences – Algorithms designed to reach specific goals could have unintended consequences that produce unforeseen results. 2. Job Loss – AI could displace workers by automating jobs, leading to severe economic disruption in the near future if nobody is trained to take over for the machines. 3. Black Box AI – AI systems are often difficult to understand, making it hard to debug the system when something goes wrong. 4. Over-Reliance on AI – Dependency on AI could lead to cognitive laziness, where humans rely too heavily on algorithms for decision-making and problem-solving. 5. AI Biases – AI systems trained on biased data and algorithms can end up replicating the same flawed assumptions and stereotypes. 6. Security Breaches – Malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in AI systems to commit cyber-attacks, data breaches and fraud.

2. Q. What’s wrong with the Philippines? A. The Philippines faces a wide range of problems that must be addressed in order to progress forward. These issues include corruption, overpopulation, environmental destruction, poverty, inequality, and unequal access to education. Additionally, Filipino infrastructure and public services are in dire need of improvement in order to create a more livable and equitable society. Other issues such as illegal drugs, crime, and terrorism also remain major problems facing the Philippines.

3. Q. When should a country have a sovereign wealth fund? A. A country should have a sovereign wealth fund when it has a large amount of assets (such as revenues from oil exports) that can be used for investments and for stabilizing government finances during economic downturns.

4. A. How can we reduce corruption in government? A. The best way to reduce corruption in government is to increase transparency and accountability. This could include strengthening laws and regulations to ensure that government officials are held to high standards, creating independent oversight and auditing systems, and engaging civil society and community members in governance processes. Additionally, investing in training for government officials on ethics, anti-corruption policies and procedures, and proper financial management can help to reduce corruption. Finally, engaging the public to report and discuss any allegations of corruption can help to both curb and address existing instances of corruption.

5. Q. Can volcanoes be punctured? A. No, volcanoes cannot be punctured. Volcanoes are made of molten rock, known as magma, that is too hot and too deep to be pierced with any known tool.

Now, you tell me if those answers sound any worse than the malarkey we’ve been hearing from some of our esteemed senators and congressmen, who cost billions to maintain, feel unbound by the rules of logic and grammar, and can take forever to give you a straight answer. Of course, they can well afford to buy a program like ChatGPT in aid of legislation (it’s free for three days, then P499/mo.). But then, why resort to chat bots when there’s already so much artificial intelligence going around in both august chambers?

Qwertyman No. 19: The Real Maria Ressa

Qwertyman for Monday, December 12, 2022

I WAS very honored to speak last Saturday at the launch of Maria Ressa’s new book, How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (Harper, 2022). I’d read an advance copy of it a couple of weeks ago, and to cut to the chase, if you’re thinking of buying a book to read for the holidays or to gift to friends, look no further. This book, for me, is among the year’s best in nonfiction.

I have to emphasize that word—nonfiction. As we all know we live in times when fiction has taken over as the most influential form of human discourse, particularly in the political arena. As a practicing fictionist, I should be happy about that, but I’m not and I can’t be, because so much of it is bad fiction, crudely written—and surprisingly, infuriatingly effective, at least with a certain kind of reader. 

Maria’s book cuts through all that. It’s undisguised, old-fashioned, in-your-face truth-telling, told in the same voice and tone we’ve become familiar with over the years of listening to her reportage over CNN. I’m sure that, like me, many of you wondered the first time you heard her: “Who was this little brown-complexioned woman speaking with an American accent?” She looked Filipino, but how come we’d never seen her before?

This was all before she rose to prominence—some would say notoriety—as the moving spirit behind Rappler, and subsequently to global fame as a Nobel Prize winner for Peace. We identified with her travails, shared her anger and sadness at the abuse she has received, and rejoiced in her victories, whether in the courts or in the larger sphere of public opinion. 

But how well do we really know Maria Ressa, and whatever drives her to be who and what she is? This book takes us to the person behind the phenomenon, and answers many questions we may have had about her and her stubborn advocacies.

The book’s title sounds like that of an instruction manual—which it is, and also is not, being part autobiography, part journalism, and part testimonial. As a manual for freedom fighters, it emphasizes the need for collaborative and collective action against seemingly insurmountable forces. Those forces now include the Internet, which, as Maria documents with both precision and profound dismay, has morphed from a medium that once held all kinds of liberative promises into a medium for mass deception and targeted assault. She draws her counsel not from some esoteric guru or academic paradigm, but from some very basic values that have informed her own life—the Honor Code she followed in school, and the Golden Rule.

“That’s what I lay out in this book,” she says, “an exploration into the values and principles not just of journalism and technology but of the collective action we need to take to win this battle for facts. This journey of discovery is intensely personal. That’s why every chapter has a micro and a macro: a personal lesson and the larger picture. You will see the simple ideas I hold on to in order to make what have—over time—become instinctive but thoughtful decisions.”

It’s this constant back-and-forth between the personal and the political—and at some point they become inextricably fused—that forms the fiber of Maria’s narrative and gives it strength. Her convictions are grounded in personal experience; they have not been paid for—as the hacks in the journalistic trade will allege, seeking to bring her down to their own level—except in the coin of personal suffering under the constant threat of imprisonment and violence.

But we learn from this book that trauma is nothing new to Maria. (We also learn that Maria Ressa wasn’t the name she was born into, but to find out her birth name, you’ll have to buy the book.) From her abrupt relocation from Manila to America at the age of ten, to her journalistic immersion in the horrors of conflict and disaster in Indonesia and Ormoc, the book chronicles Maria’s quest for truth, meaning, and purpose in her life, and that of others. She stresses the importance of remembering the past to make sense of the present, quoting TS Eliot’s phrase, “the present moment of the past.”

And so can we, she seems to suggest, even in these times of high anxiety, when we can see the vultures hovering over such once-sacrosanct treasures as our pension funds, while billions more go to feed the dogs of an increasingly untenable counter-insurgent war. The big words we have become used to tossing around—truth, freedom, reason, justice, democracy—they all come down to a personal choice to do the right thing, and the courage to do it. 

Nowhere is this matter of choice more evident than in the fact that Maria is here in the Philippines, having willfully subjected herself to our brand of justice, however imperfect it may be, instead of escaping to the safety of America or another haven, which her dual citizenship if not her celebrity can certainly afford her. She will see her own story through to the end, in the locale where it matters, among the people to whom it matters most.

I’ve often remarked, as a creative writer and professor of literature, that in this country, the writers most in danger of political persecution and retribution are really not fictionists or poets like me. Not since Rizal has a Filipino novelist been shot dead for what he wrote. For sure, we have lost many brilliant writers to the struggle for freedom and democracy—Emman Lacaba, and most recently Lorena Tariman and her husband Ericson Acosta. But they were killed by the State not for what they wrote—the State is illiterate when it comes to metaphor—but for what they allegedly did.

Rather, the most imperiled writers in the Philippines as in many other places are the journalists who speak the language of the people and of their plaints in terms too clear to ignore. They could be radio announcers like Percy Lapid, or the victims of wholesale murder in Maguindanao, or high-profile and exemplary targets such as Maria Ressa. It would have been easy for her to lash back at her critics and tormentors with the same viciousness. But, she says, “I will not become a criminal to fight a criminal. I will not become a monster to fight a monster.”

That, too, is a difficult choice, and one I am sure we are often tempted to cast aside. But Maria’s equanimity in the face of savagery shames us back into our better selves. It will be that kind of quiet resolve that we will need to survive and prevail. After all, we survived martial law. We can survive this regime—with agility, patience, and courage. But don’t take my word for it. Read Maria’s book to know that we can, and why we must.

Qwertyman No. 15: The Next UP President

Qwertyman for Monday, November 14, 2022

AFTER FOURTEEN straight Mondays of producing what I’ve called “editorial fiction”—make-believe vignettes meant to poke fun at the issues of the day, the prose version of editorial cartoons—I’ll take what will be the occasional break to engage more frontally with a concern of deep personal and professional interest.

Over the next few weeks, the Board of Regents of the University of the Philippines will select the 22nd president of our national university to succeed President Danilo L. Concepcion, whose six-year term ends in February next year. (Let me add quickly, for full disclosure, that I was President Concepcion’s Vice President for Public Affairs until I retired in 2019, and held the same position under former President Francisco Nemenzo in the early 2000s.)

Whether or not you graduated from UP or have a child or a relative there, this is important for every Filipino, because—like it or not—UP produces an immoderate majority of the people who make up our political, economic, and social elite. Its leadership, therefore, is a matter of national consequence. Since its birth in 1908, UP’s alumni roster has counted presidents, senators, congressmen, CEOs, community leaders, artists, writers, scientists, and, yes, rebels and reformers of all persuasions. 

There are six candidates on the BOR’s ballot, some of them, to my mind, more qualified—beyond what their CVs say—than others. The Board of Regents has eleven members—the CHED chairman, the incumbent president, the chairs of the Senate and House committees on higher education, the alumni regent, three Malacañang appointees, and three so-called sectoral (faculty, student, and staff) regents; it will take six of them to elect the next president. 

Whoever that choice is, he will be certain to have a challenging six years ahead, especially considering the present political regime, which he will have to contend and to some significant extent work with. UP remains dependent on the national government for its budget, for which it has to make its case before Congress every year, like any other agency. 

Prickly issues will face No. 22. There’s been a lot of loose talk lately about UP’s standards supposedly falling, with too many cum laudes graduating even as its international ranking has reportedly dropped. Indeed these should give rise to public concern, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, and UP’s level of service to the nation (think PGH in the pandemic) hasn’t flagged.

Historically, the relationship between the Philippine president and the UP president has been a testy if not an acrimonious one—most notably that between Quezon and Palma—because of the university’s role as social critic. But Malacañang now has much to do with choosing the latter through the power wielded by administration representatives on the BOR. What the Marcoses will do with UP remains to be seen; will the next UP president, for example, be given free rein to pursue the martial law museum project that’s already been approved for construction? It may not be the most important item on the agenda—more support for research and faculty development should be, if we want to shore up our ratings—but it will be strongly indicative of how the Palace will deal with Diliman.

What I’ve observed is that the role of the UP president has greatly evolved since Palma’s time. While many of us would like to see an ideological firebrand at the helm, UP is a broad and diverse community whose survival and growth will require keen diplomatic skills to negotiate between the university’s external and internal publics. (And yes, even firebrands can do that, against all expectations; Dodong Nemenzo did.) University presidents worldwide have increasingly been more of resource generators and managers than thought leaders—perhaps boring, but they deliver the goods. What’s important is for them to be able to practice and defend the academic freedom that also allows the university to become the best it can be. I pray our regents will bear that balance in mind in its deliberations.

ALSO, A word on my chosen approach to editorial commentary. I know that some of you can’t make heads or tails of my fictionalized renditions of our political and social culture, but I think you will, with just a little more effort. Maybe it’s the literature professor in me, but I believe readers should be challenged to figure out the sense of things, and not just have it served to them on a platter. 

We’ve fallen into the groove of letting others reach our conclusions for us, so all we need to do is nod affirmatively. Whichever side of the political fence you’re on, that only contributes to sloppy, second-hand, copy-paste thinking. In my pieces, I try not focus on just one person or one target—other and sharper columnists can do that. I’m more interested in the culture of our politics—in the way groups of us think and feel about what’s in our best interests—and in our complicity in bad governance. Sure, we have rotten eggs in high public office—every administration has had them. At this point, I’m much less bothered by the fact that we live in a world of despots than by the fact that we (or many of us) put them there, we keep them there, and we just pinch our noses when they stink.  

Another columnist (who actually writes wilder fiction than me and my feverishly imaginative friends) even complained that fiction has no place in the op-ed page. Excuse me? All fiction is opinion, and always has been; the critical commentary of fiction even preceded journalism. In earlier times, our op-ed pages even offered poetry—political commentary in verse—at a time when our poets were patriots, and our patriots were poets. Sadly those times and those exceptional commentators are gone, replaced by hacks producing not only dishonest and soulless but dishwater prose. 

I’m not a poet, so the closest I can get to that is fiction, which pretends that some things happened that didn’t (but then again, in another sense, really did—and that’s what some readers find confusing). One thing I must confess I do like about fiction is that, unlike factual commentary that readers today tend to forget after a week, a good story sticks around. Sadly for its implicit targets, fiction is forever. You can shoot me dead, but my work will survive me—and, for that matter, you.

Qwertyman No. 9: Fiction Counter-Fiction

Qwertyman for October 3, 2022

(Photo from pond5.com)

“LADIES AND gentlemen, we have a problem.” Ma’am Ventura, no less than the Queen of Trolls herself, looked down the long table through her oversize Versace shades at her social media managers, who were nervously fixing their ties and tapping their Jinhao pens in anticipation of what she had to say. Their managers’ meetings usually didn’t start until ten p.m.—when the day’s news would have aired and they had the whole night to prepare for the next day’s barrage of posts—but today she had messaged them to come in at eight, apparently at the request of the mystery guest who sat to her left. He was, they were told, an important man, an opinion-maker like they were, only more visible.

He seemed fidgety himself, his eyes somewhat crossed and unfocused, as if he had had laser surgery in the belief that he would look better without glasses, but the operation had gone awfully wrong. Now he simply looked stunned and misplaced, and the others couldn’t be sure if he was smiling or grimacing. Ma’am Ventura had lit up one of her Dunhill Lights and the smoke was drifting past her visitor’s face but she wasn’t apologizing for it, which told her staff that she didn’t think he was that special after all, despite what she would say.

“We have a special guest with us tonight who’ll explain why. This is Mr. Rutherford or Rudy Tuklaw, and he comes from the Bureau.” Her mention of “the Bureau” drew some gasps. It was rumored to be a top-secret, off-the-books grouping of some of the President’s most rabid supporters and enforcers. Some brought money; some were paid. To Ma’am Ventura, Rudy looked like the paid kind. 

“Thank you all for being here,” Tuklaw said after clearing his throat, as if they had a choice. “In fact, we have more than one problem.” He brought out some folded newspapers from his bag and tossed them on the table to be handed around. “Look at these columnists—this one, and this one. There might be more I don’t know about yet. These people are a disgrace to journalism and should be weeded out!”

One of the managers, Nico, read one of the columns and began giggling, showing it to his seatmate Bruce. “You should read this piece about nuns playing poker,” he whispered. “It’s hilarious!”

“You think that’s funny?” Tuklaw said, becoming even more cross-eyed. “That’s fiction! These are supposed to be serious Op-Ed columns, but these guys are writing fiction!”

A young woman named Ms. Morales raised her hand and Ma’am Ventura nodded to acknowledge her. “May I ask—sir—exactly what’s wrong with that?” Ms. Morales liked fiction—not the boring Hemingway or Faulkner stuff her English teacher had force-fed them with, but real, honest fiction like Fifty Shades of Gray.

“Why? Because it’s not fair! These people are making fun of the President, of democracy, of sensible reform measures like the ‘report-your-subversive-sister’ law and the ‘no-car, no-garage’ law, and they’re getting away with it! You and I—all of you here—we’re engaged in a war of words with these low-life misfits. Granted, some of our methods are, uhm, unconventional—but even among combatants, there are rules of engagement. Like should beget like! If I write a column attacking you, well, then write a column attacking me—don’t hide behind this cowardly contrivance called fiction, which is all made up and contains not one smidgen of fact!”

“But if it’s all made up and totally without factual basis, then—why should we be worried—sir?” Ms. Morales pursued.

“That’s exactly it!” Tuklaw responded, sputtering. “They make no clear assertions, no claims to truth, so we can’t pin them down for anything.”

Another manager named Bruce had been staring at the piece before him for minutes. “I don’t get it. I’ve been trying to make sense of it, but—I don’t see anything funny here. I just don’t get it.”

Nico leapt at the chance to score a point. “Well, there you go! If Bruce can’t make heads or tails of it, then so will most people. People are stupid.” Bruce’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s why we use short posts like Twitter. That’s all most people can deal with. Nobody reads these—these novels!”

“Maybe you can do the same thing!” Ms. Morales said. “Give them a dose of their own medicine. Fiction counter-fiction!”

Rudy was about to say “I can’t” but pursed his lips and said instead, “I won’t. I refuse to dignify the form.” It rankled him that the column-stories, written in a breezy style, seemed like they had been done in fifteen minutes while he labored into the night on his own diatribes against the enemy, especially when he had to be more creative with his scenarios, which his principals expected. 

“So what do you want us to do, Mr. Tuklaw?” Ma’am Ventura mopped some of her ashes off the table with a wet napkin. She saw herself as the professional who produced the deliverables with cool and bankable efficiency for a specified sum, not a seething hack like her visitor who kept hoping to parlay his influence into some cushy appointment with a four-syllable title. She was receiving him out of sheer courtesy, and because she had always been curious to see what Rutherford Tuklaw was like in person. Now she knew. She blew more smoke into his face.

“I want you to destroy them—these—these jokers!” 

“Isn’t that the Bureau’s department, Mr. Tuklaw? They can make people go away.”

“I don’t mean that—yet—although it’s not a bad idea, at least to scare them. I mean, we could say, if I killed these idiots, emphasize IF, then show me some leniency, something like that.”

“So destroy them in words? On Facebook? And Twitter? Maybe even longer blog posts? Go after their families, their reputations, their sexuality, their food preferences—”

“Whatever, whatever—invent what you need. I just want them to squirm like—like the worms they are!” His legs were twisted around each other beneath the table.

Ms. Morales felt chirpy. “So we can use fiction, Mr. Tuklaw? I took up six units of Fiction Writing in UP!”

Tuklaw stared grimly at his knotted fingers on the table. “Like I said. Whatever!”

Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Penman No. 441: The Mystery of the Word

Penman for July 31, 2022

TO BEGIN with a small personal note: this week marks my 22nd anniversary writing Penman for the Philippine STAR, an adventure that began on August 5, 2000 with a piece about my recent writing fellowship in Norwich, England, working on the novel that eventually became Soledad’s Sister (Anvil Publishing, 2008). I’ve kept every column I’ve written since then in my digital files, now numbering over 1,100 pieces; a couple of years ago, I selected what I thought were the ones worth reading again (not every column is, to be perfectly honest) and put 110 of them together in a book titled A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays (UP Press, 2020, still available on Shopee and Lazada). 

It’s hard to believe that 22 years and 1,100 columns later, I’m still at it, and perhaps even harder yet to believe that I’m enjoying it with the same sense of discovery and delight, looking forward to seeing my text in print with a cub reporter’s enthusiasm. Much of that I should credit to my editors, Millet Mananquil, along with Igan D’Bayan and now Scott Garceau, who have been extremely supportive, sometimes to the point of indulgence (such as when I stray far beyond the normal bounds of art and culture). I’ve since learned to moderate myself, to stay within the zone, and to proactively seek out less known but worthy cultural endeavors to publicize. (The eager beaver in me has made sure that my editors never have to worry about my meeting deadlines; my columns are usually done the week before.)

I began reporting and writing for the old Philippines Herald at age 18, in 1972; at 68, I still remind myself that writing for a national broadsheet, even in this age of Facebook, is a tremendous privilege, so I still respect my editors, my deadlines, and my readers’ intelligence. I can only hope that our younger writers—who now have the freedom and capability to write whatever they like whenever they want on their blogs—will understand that journalism is also a community of shared values (by which I don’t simply mean pakikisama, although there’s a lot of that), and that no matter how brilliant you may think you are, you still have to earn your union card, so to speak, to gain the goodwill and respect of others (and if those things don’t matter to you, then you have a problem, and good luck with that). 

Moving on to other fruitful friendships and associations, I was elated to attend the Parangal for our newest National Artists at the CCP Main Theater last month. The eight new laureates were Agnes Locsin for Dance; Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor) and Ricardo “Ricky” Lee for Film and Broadcast Arts; Gemino Abad for Literature; Fides Cuyugan-Asensio for Music; and posthumously, Antonio “Tony” Mabesa for Theater, Salvacion Lim Higgins for Fashion Design, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya for Film and Broadcast Arts.

I was proud to note that I had worked with or for many of them, and was well aware of their exceptional talent and dedication to their craft. I had never met Nora Aunor, but had written a script for her, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,” directed by the late (and also National Artist) Lino Brocka. Lino regaled me with stories about how amazingly good a natural actress Nora was, and I thought so myself, watching her onscreen. I had many issues with former President Rodrigo Duterte’s governance, but I have to credit him for not interfering—unlike many of his predecessors—with the National Artist selection process, particularly in Nora’s case, which everyone knew had been previously held up because of her alleged drug use.

I had worked with directors Tony Mabesa and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, sadly both of them now gone. Tony directed several of my plays and always managed to get just the right tone I wanted to come across. Marilou directed my script which eventually became “Ika-11 Utos: Mahalin Mo Asawa Mo” (someone else always made up these more marketable titles, for which I had absolutely no talent), a crime and domestic drama that received respectable reviews but didn’t win any prizes. But what I observed in Marilou was her work ethic and her methodical approach to the material. I had been used to churning out one-week wonders for Lino, but with Marilou, the scripting process took months, because she would pause and analyze every scene and snippet of dialogue for its political and philosophical implications. 

I was gratified to have made the right call in the cases of Jimmy Abad and Ricky Lee; I had privately predicted, before the results were announced (and with no inside information whatsoever) that the two would be very strong contenders (I also mentioned Lualhati Bautista and Pete Lacaba, among those still living; for the record, I was also nominated, but it was more to make my 94-year-old mom proud and happy, which she was, and so I was). I had known Ricky for a long time, both of us being Lino Brocka’s go-to’s when he needed a script done fast. Ricky, of course, was more than fast; he was good. And while I wandered off into many other kinds of writing, Ricky turned screenwriting into the art and profession it deserved to be, not just for himself but for scores of acolytes. We used to ask each other, half-jokingly, why Pete seemed to get all the choice, festival-bound assignments; and we decided that it was because, by his own admission, Pete was the slowest scriptwriter among us, and therefore got to work on the long-gestating projects.

But I was happiest of all for my former professor and dear friend Jimmy Abad, whom I felt should have received this honor at least ten years earlier, given his elevated poetry, outstanding scholarship, and generous mentorship to generations of writers. For someone who began by studying to be a farmer at UP Los Baños and who then entered the Jesuit seminary (when he left after three years, he recalls, “The first thing I did was to look for a store and smoke a cigarette!”), Jimmy found his true calling in unraveling the Mystery of The Word, of language and how it shapes our view of life. I can think of no writer more purely dedicated to his art than Jimmy, the classic absent-minded professor who drives up one-way streets and whom I had to remind of his exact age. When it comes to words and their meanings, he is ever-aware, ever-present, and ever-caring. A true National Artist, indeed. Heartiest congratulations to all!

Hindsight No. 28: The Queen of Trolls

Hindsight for July 25, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

FROM THE street, the building still looked like the bank it had once been, with fluted columns crowned by precast acanthus leaves, but the paint and even the cement cladding had chipped off to reveal the pedestrian concrete underneath. It had been a branch of the old Fidelity Bank & Trust Co., which had gone under in the 1980s after its owner had fled to Southern Spain with P600 million in debts, and the building had served various lessees and uses—once, even, as a shoe emporium on its ground floor, with a restaurant in the mezzanine. But with the building of the LRT, the whole district was literally benighted, occupied by aging tenants with nowhere else to go, pitted with all kinds of booby traps for the unwary.

The former bank’s windows had all been shuttered or painted over, but a steady procession of young people still went in and out of the place through a side door at all hours of the day and night. The locals were made to understand that it had been converted to a call center, although a sign that said “Far Eastern Institute of Homeopathic Medicine” still hung beside the old entrance. Security guards—always two at a time—were posted at the side door, and they ran everyone’s ID through a screening device before letting them in.

The one exception to this routine was the woman they called Ma’am Ventura, a smallish, gray-haired lady in her late sixties who was always accompanied by her driver-bodyguard Bulag, so-called because he never took off his wraparound shades. Ma’am Ventura always wore a dark jacket, matching skirt, white blouse, and flat shoes, like a bank teller—which she had been, in this very same branch, which explained why she had chosen to lease it for her operation. 

She had had the mezzanine converted to an office with a window overlooking the cubicles below, and with a long table around which her floor managers assembled at 10 p.m. to assess the day’s metrics and discuss tomorrow’s messages. The dress code for the trolls below—the “social media specialists”—was strictly informal, the easier for them to vanish into the crowd, but for her managers, Ma’am Ventura insisted on ties, socks, skirts, and heels, so they could understand that they were professionals, as worthy of respect as any college instructor or law clerk. “Transforming society through democratic discourse” was the outfit’s pitch to its recruits.

But tonight, Ma’am Ventura was in a typically foul mood, reviewing some scripts that a new hire had prepared. “Puñeta! I’m not asking you to write an essay that will get a 1.0 from Professor Dadufalza! I want you to say, in 280 characters or less, and in words Bulag will understand, why historians lie! Can someone please show poor Ms.—uhm—Ms. Morales here how she needs to think if she wants to stay in this job?”

Ever eager to please, Nico raised his pencil from his seat on Ma’am Ventura’s right. “They’re people. Just like us. They make mistakes. We don’t even need to prove they’re wrong. We just need to show they could be.”

“Wasn’t the Code of Kalantiaw fake news? Someone just made it up,” came a voice from the far end. Nico winced, knowing it was coming. Angela never missed an opportunity to upstage him at these sessions, flaunting her UP degree—which she knew Ma’am Ventura had as well—like she was standing on a three-foot stool, spreading her arms wide. “Even historians can be fooled.” 

“How many Pinoys out there today even know about the Code of Kalantiaw?” said Bruce, Nico’s ally and Angela’s spurned suitor. “That might be good for TV or Kuya Obet’s column but it’s useless for us.”

“So what can we use? Ms. Morales, any ideas? Redeem yourself.” Ma’am Ventura lit up her first cigarette of the evening; smoking was forbidden on the shop floor but up here they would all reek of it by midnight. This was the part of the work Ma’am Ventura enjoyed the most. The business side of the meeting—impressions, reach, audience growth, engagement rate, etc.—just harvested stats for the client. The Q&A reminded her of the time, after the bank closed down, when she had to take on a teaching job at the college in her provincial hometown. She had begun by teaching Accounting, which she had studied for, but as often happened in these places, she was soon made to teach English and even History. 

At first she tried her best to keep a few chapters ahead of her students, reading the textbooks late at night and figuring out exercises to keep them busy and from asking questions she couldn’t answer. But then the load just became too heavy and she began resorting to what she told herself was just conjecture—that, for example, Josephine Bracken agreed to become Jose Rizal’s wife to escape a scandal in her family—and she soon found it so pleasurable that even her exams posed questions like “What if Japan had won the Second World War? What would you be eating and watching on TV today?” She graded them based on their inventiveness, which she took as another form of intelligence. They began with a set of known facts, and then embellished them, building speculation upon speculation. It was much more fun that just memorizing names and dates. History was a record of settled arguments—until you gave it a kick.

Ms. Morales struggled. “Well—ma’am—can we say that historians lie because—because they don’t really know what happened, so—so they may not even know they’re lying? I mean—they’re not bad people, just—”

“Historians lie because they get paid to lie—by the left-wing universities that buy their books, even by the priests who are always looking for somebody else to blame,” Nico interjected, holding his pencil like he was about to snap it. “We just have to show they’re no saints.”

Angela added, “Let’s dig up some dirt, surely there’s—”

Ma’am Ventura rapped the table. “So what’s the line, boys and girls, what are we going to feed the sharks?” Below them, the monitors from dozens of computer screens glowed like votive candles to a hungry god.

A little hand went up from Ms. Morales. Everyone stopped. A snicker escaped Bruce’s airways. Ms. Morales fidgeted with her Hello Kitty purse. “Kung—kung manghuhula binabayaran, historian pa kaya? I mean… they’re also fortune-tellers, right? Just looking backwards.” She zipped and unzipped her purse. No one spoke until Ma’am Ventura began clapping.

Hija, that’s brilliant! I want you all to write scripts around that punchline! Ms. Morales, I don’t know what you had for dinner, but I’m calling Grab to order it for everyone! Welcome aboard!” Ma’am Ventura blew a cloud of smoke so for a moment no one could see her face, but they could imagine her flashing that sweetest of smiles.

Hindsight No. 22: An Unsolicited Draft (1)

Hindsight for June 13, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

HAVING HAD a hand in crafting presidential speeches and messages for many decades now, I thought I would give it the old try and produce an unsolicited draft for our presumptive President’s inaugural speech, just in case he wants to broaden his options. 

In fact, I’ll write two drafts: (1) for this week, the win-them-over version, representing a radical departure from what his detractors expect from him, a total refashioning not only of the Marcos image but of its substance as well; and (2) for next week, the thunder-and-lightning version, which those who dread the imminence of another Marcos presidency probably hear in their nightmares. (And before the trolls feast on me, kindly look up “satire” in the dictionary and double your erudition in three minutes.) So here we go.

My countrymen:

I acknowledge that I have come to this high office with much to prove, not only to the 31 million who have invested their hopes in my presidency, but also, and just as importantly, to the 81 million more who could not and did not vote, or preferred another candidate. Having chosen “unity” as the theme of my campaign, I am now obliged to realize that ideal and to take concrete steps that will prove the sincerity of my ambition.

Many of you know me only as “the dictator’s son,” a privileged wastrel who squandered your hard-earned money in youthful frivolity, a man bereft of substantial ideas and a genuine vision for our country’s future. Today I shall aim to correct that impression, with the adoption of several key measures that should smoothen the road to national reconciliation. 

As far as I am concerned, the time for rancor and divisiveness ended on May 10. I take the overwhelming mandate you have given me not as a license to persecute my enemies, but rather as a vote of confidence in my dream of unity. I will use this historic opportunity to address and reverse the injustices of the past, to chart a new course for our people and for my family, and to direct the energies and talents of my supporters to positive, nation-building pursuits. At the same time, I ask my detractors and former opponents to set our differences aside, and judge me for what I will do, and not what you thought I could not.

I am under no illusion that the measures I will announce will please everyone, not even within my own family. To those who were expecting a shower of favors and largesse, that will not happen. Henceforth we shall eschew political patronage and favoritism, and adopt merit and performance as the measure of one’s fitness to serve, which I hope will compensate for any personal shortcomings of mine in this respect.

Today I am announcing seven important measures that should set the tone for my administration.

First, I am directing the abolition of the PCGG, because it will no longer have a function, having been created to go after the assets of my family said to have been ill-gotten. Here before you today, I am signing a check to the Philippine treasury in the amount of P203 billion that should settle our tax liabilities once and for all. (Pause for ceremonial signing and applause; hold up signed check for cameras.)

Second, I am directing the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC, and replacing it with a People’s Peace and Development Council that will coordinate with NEDA and be its citizens’ arm in the planning and implementation of community-based development programs. All funds appropriated for the NTF-ELCAC will be transferred to this council. I am also pleased to announce that this PPDC will be headed by none other than my esteemed fellow candidate, former Vice President Leni Robredo, whom I thank deeply for responding positively to my invitation. (Pause for VP Leni to rise and acknowledge the crowd’s applause; go over and shake her hand for photo opportunities.)

Third, I am asking Congress, as their first priority, to pass a law abolishing political dynasties. My relatives to the third degree now occupying elective office will not serve beyond one term. None of my relatives to the third degree will be appointed to any government position, in any agency or GOCC, under my administration.

Fourth, for greater transparency and accountability, I am directing the immediate release of the SALNs of all government officials, both elective and appointive, above Salary Grade 28 or bureau director. My own SALN will be published in all major news media and online within 48 hours. I am also granting a blanket waiver to enable the appropriate government authorities to access information on all my personal accounts.

Fifth, as a gesture of reconciliation, I am directing the immediate release from detention of former Sen. Leila de Lima. Her persecution has gone on long enough. Furthermore, I will direct the Secretary of Justice to review all cases of political detention and to expedite the release of the individuals concerned. National unity cannot be achieved if those we wish to unite with have to speak through prison bars. 

Sixth, I will adopt a pro-Filipino foreign policy that will assert our sovereignty over what has been rightfully ours, and resist all encroachments in unity with ASEAN and our other multilateral partners. My first visit will be to China to impress upon their leadership the seriousness of our intentions. Incidentally I am appointing former Justice Antonio Carpio as our ambassador to China, given his mastery of the issues and his desire for their peaceful resolution.

Seventh, I am personally guaranteeing the academic freedom of the University of the Philippines and of all other universities and colleges in the country, toward which I am directing the establishment of a P100 billion endowment fund for UP that will help ensure its fiscal autonomy and help it achieve even greater excellence. In token return, I will request our esteemed historians and political scientists from that university to write a revised and updated Philippine history that will faithfully and factually record the period of martial law, leaving no stone unturned, as well as the aftermath leading to my election. This history will be taught in all high schools. 

Unless our people fully understand our past—and unless I myself confront and accept its dark reality—they will not appreciate the significance of what I am doing today, in the spirit of reconciliation, restitution, and redemption. Never again, so help me God.

Hindsight No. 21: Mr. Secretary

Hindsight for Monday, June 6, 2022

(Note: This could be the strangest thing you will ever see on an Op-Ed page, a new genre I’m going to call “editorial fiction,” observations of the current scene rendered as short stories. No direct references are intended.)

THE CALL came at a little past one in the morning, well after bedtime for George and his wife Trina. Trina stirred in their bed and pulled the blanket over her shoulder in a gesture of irritation, but as soon as she gathered whom George was speaking with, she froze and tried to capture every word that was being said, over the hum of the aircon and the occasional screech of late-night traffic along the boulevard twelve floors below. She had wanted a unit as close to the penthouse as they could get, but the price was just beyond their reach, so they settled for a 14th-floor corner suite—the 13th floor, of course, was non-existent for superstition’s sake—with a broad view of the bay on one side and a long thread of highway on the other, fading into the southern suburbs.

George should have been annoyed as well to have been called so late, but he was not. He had not even been asleep, having watched an episode of The Blacklist without paying too much attention to what Raymond Reddington was whispering into Elizabeth’s ear. He had been swilling his Cragganmore, not bothering with his usual routine of adding a few drops of water to unravel its complexity; his taste buds felt dull and flat. Life itself suddenly seemed tentative and purposeless. He had been staring at his phone for an hour, checking its battery status, thumbing through his messages to make sure he had not missed anything important. 

When the phone rang he had to gulp down the whisky with which he was simply wetting his throat, utterly without pleasure, but instantly he straightened up in bed and took the call, curling a conspiratorial palm over his mouth, as if a spy lived on the 15th floor.

“Good evening—good morning—sir!… Oh, no sir—I was still awake—I mean, I read the newspaper and was surprised to see my name there, but…. Yes, of course, I mean, I wasn’t expecting anything, since you know how I feel about—well, about… things, things that happened in the past…. The future, of course, the future, I agree…. I appreciate that, I honestly never imagined that I would be talking to—oh, no, sir, no ‘doctor’ or ‘professor,’ please, just call me George, George is fine, everybody calls me George…. Haha, yes, I’m older than you by four years, but you’re the president! Or will be—I mean, in a few weeks…. I’m deeply, deeply honored, sir, of course I am….Uhhh…. Sir, could you maybe give me some time, a couple of days, just to talk it over with Trina?”

At this point, Trina had dropped all pretenses of trying to sleep and was watching George intently, making words with her mouth that George couldn’t be bothered to read. But George looked in her direction and continued talking as if she wasn’t there. In the background, at the other end of the line, he could hear people laughing and shouting, and the pounding rhythm of a Village People tune. His friend Estoy who had texted him earlier to expect a call was probably there; Estoy had been a consistent flunker in college, but now he seemed unusually adept, even prescient. 

“Yes, sir, Trina, Katrina Palileo, the sorority sister of your cousin Angie…. Our two children are both in the States…. She’s retired now but still consults for—oh, no, no, I don’t think it will be a problem…. 48 hours, thank you, sir, I’ll talk to her and get back to you…. Many thanks again, sir, and good morning!”

George slumped into his bedside chair, threw his phone on the bed, and poured himself a fresh shot. He grinned at the hapless Trina, waiting for her to pop the question.

“So? So what did he say? Did you get the position?”

George tried to put on a straight face, without much success. “I said I would think about it—I said I would ask you first.”

“Idiot!” Trina said, laughing, and threw a pillow at him, almost hitting his shot glass. “You call him right back, right now, and tell him I approve! Of course I approve, 110 percent!” She picked up his phone and held it out to him. “Call him now, while he’s still awake, and before he changes his mind!”

George brushed the suggestion away, turning pensive. “No, no, I shouldn’t look too eager, like I really, really want it—”

“But you do, right? I mean—a week ago I never would have thought this would happen, but when your name came up in the news, I thought, oh my God, really?”

“That’s what I’m asking—why. Why me?”

“And why the hell not? Nobody knows the field more than you, you’ve published zillions of academic papers, people hold you in enormous respect, you’re better appreciated in London and Geneva than you are here, and you were never known to be his flunkey!”

“No,” said George, “I never was. That’s why I think he wants me. Maybe I could change things.” He looked at Trina, who was about forty pounds heavier than when they first met, across a barbed wire fence in martial-law prison. He himself had been thin as a rake, having had very little to eat in their Marikina safehouse. He took it as a blessing to have been arrested in a raid; there was more food in prison, and he would have died within a week of scaling the mountains. And there was Trina, whose pageboy bob had been replaced by shoulder-length curls dyed some shade of sunset. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to forget what she had gone through, and he never brought it up. To survive and to live well—that alone was sweet revenge.

“We used to talk a lot about the future—is this it? How did this happen?”

She put her arms around him and pulled him back to bed. “You think too much,” Trina said, and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Congratulations and good night, Mr. Secretary! Let’s call the kids in the morning!”

Out the window, the lights of a tanker flickered on the pitch-black bay, the only way to tell that there was a horizon.