Penman No. 256: Get a Life (2.0)

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GET A LIFE Ver. 2.0

Jose Dalisay Jr., PhD

Address to the Graduating Class

University of the Philippines Baguio

22 June 2017

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 255: A History Book Project Like No Other

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Penman for Monday, June 19, 2017

 

LAST MONDAY’S celebration of Independence Day reminded me of the Philippine Centennial nearly 20 years ago, when I took part in the launch of the first and still the biggest book project I’ve taken on in my professional life. I’ve edited about as many books as I’ve written—more than 30—and 10 of those were all for one massive undertaking, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People (Asia Publishing Co., 1998).

It was a 10-volume history of the Philippines like no other, put together by some of country’s foremost historians, academics, and writers, a joint project of Reader’s Digest Asia and A-Z Direct Marketing, which was then Reader’s Digest’s local distributor at a time when the family-friendly monthly was still going strong.

The idea was hatched in 1996 in anticipation of the forthcoming Centennial between A-Z’s late president Lirio Sandoval and the indefatigable Tere Custodio, who became the project director; Reader’s Digest Asia would foot most of the bill. Their idea was that while Philippine histories and encyclopedias had existed, none of them seemed comprehensive, popularly accessible, and visually compelling enough.

Tere shopped around for an executive editor, and I think it was our mutual friend Gina Apostol who suggested me (to my everlasting gratitude). We then took on two key and stellar talents, both of them sadly now gone—Doreen Fernandez as our editorial consultant and Nik Ricio as our book designer. Together, we planned out a 10-volume series, each full-sized volume no less than 300 pages, with an average of at least one picture—many of them never published before, acquired from international and private collections—on every page, 3,500 images in all.

The volume titles previewed the series’ coverage and contents: The Philippine Archipelago; The Earliest Filipinos; The Spanish Conquest; Life in the Colony; Reform and Revolution; Under Stars and Stripes; The Japanese Occupation; Up from the Ashes; A Nation Reborn; and A Timeline of Philippine History.

To write each of these volumes, we recruited our most eminent historians and experts—people like Dr. Milagros Guerrero, Fr. John Schumacher, Dr. Ricardo T. Jose, and Dr. Ma. Serena Diokno. Each volume was also supplemented by around 20 essays, contributed by the country’s top writers and cultural figures from Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera to Jessica Zafra—on topics ranging from early forms of Philippine writing and wartime “Mickey Mouse” money to 16th-century Visayan warriors and the origins of the kundiman. (My own single contribution as a writer to the series was an essay on the First Quarter Storm.)

It seemed like a gargantuan project, and indeed it was, requiring not only the production of enormous amounts of historical scholarship and pictorial research (the latter task headed by no less than Romy Gacad) but also the management of a budget hitherto unheard of in local publishing and, more dauntingly, of over 200 egos. I also organized a small team of sub-editors to help me get the job done, and sent them memos emphasizing the need for readability; every author’s brief, after all, was “to write in a style that can be understood by the Filipino high school and college student, without compromising the seriousness of the work as history.” The Internet in the Philippines was in its rudimentary stage; we had email, but still moved files around in floppies.

We gathered the editorial team for the first time one day in January 1997, setting for ourselves the formidable goal of launching 10 new, profusely illustrated books in June 1998, or 18 months hence. Against all odds, that goal was met. I would write as a promotional blurb at the end that “Here, finally, is the story of the Filipino: told from a Filipino viewpoint, but with a full appreciation of the modern Filipino’s engagement in a rapidly globalizing society.”

That priceless experience would teach me everything I needed to know as a textual editor, leaving much of the people management to the thoroughly professional and unwavering Tere. Including the essays, I read, edited, and proofread a million words; I sat side-by-side with Nik poring over the layout, adjusting the text to remove—as the perfectionist in him demanded—rivers, widows, and orphans (publishing terms you’d do well to Google), and writing and positioning subheads for visual relief.

One more task remained for me, which was to draft speeches for the two principal guests of honor at the grand book launch at the Manila Hotel on June 1—President Fidel V. Ramos and former President Corazon Aquino. I’ve sadly lost the draft I did for Cory, but I still have notes that have FVR saying:

“If the art of narrative or of storytelling is the art of making sense of seemingly random or disparate events, then Kasaysayan is our story, our understanding of ourselves, our version of the same events that other writers have used to keep us subjugated and alien unto ourselves. Written from our point of view, this version—this vision—is one that must empower us, that must make us whole, that must enable us to better ourselves and our future. We cannot change history, but history can change us.”

The handsomely boxed ten-volume set initially sold for P16,000; a few months ago I learned that surplus sets were being marketed in some Manila bookstores for as low as P2,000. That sounds to me like the bargain of the century—especially if you have a teenager in the house in need of a sense of history, or just want to see our history in a way you never did before.

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Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

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Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN nearly 20 years since I received the news that I had won the biggest writing grant of my life. I was 45 and raring to work on my second novel, and had a germ of an idea, suggested by the sad parade of caskets that arrived almost daily at Manila’s international airport. I knew that our overseas workers and their experience was the big story of that period, but I needed time away from teaching to get started on the project, so I applied for a new grant that was being offered at the University of East Anglia in the UK for what was described then as “a novel of Asia.”

The UEA website describes that fellowship thus: “The David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship is a unique and generous annual award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about the Far East to spend a year in the UK, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Fellowship is named for its sponsor Mr. David Wong, a retired Hong Kong businessman who has also been a teacher, journalist and senior civil servant, and is a writer of fiction. The Fellowship was launched in 1997 and the first Fellow appointed from 1st October 1998.” (Collections of short stories are now accepted in lieu of the novel. The UEA and its writing program are acknowledged to be the leader in the field in the UK, with Booker Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Anne Enright among their distinguished alumni.)

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I honestly can’t remember now how I chanced upon the Wong Fellowship—these were the early days of the Internet in the Philippines, when modems screeched like mating cats before connecting over phone lines—but Beng and I soon packed our bags for the privilege of a lifetime. It would take a few more years, but that idyllic journey eventually gave birth to Soledad’s Sister, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and published in 2008. I was only the second Wong Fellow, and after me, in 2003, another Filipino followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy, now based in Denmark, whose novel Sweet Haven also began taking shape in Norwich.

Last month came the terrific news that yet another Filipino, Nathaniel Go, had been named the new David T. K. Wong Fellow, besting dozens of other applicants from around the world. I was so elated by the news that I sought out Nathan, as he prefers to be called, by email, and got this story from him:

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“I was born and grew up in Davao City. This is quite a statement to make nowadays as Davao has suddenly received a lot of attention. But back then, I remember a quiet and laid-back existence, highlighted every summer with the sickly sweet smell of mangoes, as our neighbor who owned a farm, would bring in basket after basket from their harvest. When it rained, water buffaloes would sometimes stop traffic outside our house by bathing in the large potholes filled with mud. The best thing to have come out of such a childhood, of course, is my love of books. Our bookshelf was quite small and included such juvenilia as the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Choose Your Own Adventure was also a hit back then. The Bible was a staple. Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the gold standard. Eventually, once I developed a taste for books I quickly sought new titles from our school library.”

Nathan was a voracious reader, so much so that his school librarian once dared him to bring a truck to borrow the whole collection. He left home at 16 and went to Ateneo de Manila, but moved to the US shortly after to join his siblings in California, where he finally got to study what he had always wanted—literature, linguistics, political science, and screenwriting. He worked briefly as a paralegal before giving in to his muse and studying fiction at the University of Michigan and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Nathan has taught creative writing at the Braille Institute. He will be working on his first novel in Norwich. But as far as he’s come in the world, Nathan still writes about the Philippines and still considers it his home.

“I go back every now and then and I’m always surprised by how fast things are changing, but how—underneath the changes—the fundamental things remain the same,” he says. “These fundamental things are hard to articulate, but I guess that’s where my stories come in. As an author, I straddle an identity and the space between a true insider and outsider of the Philippines. I write about Davao and I write about the small Filipino Chinese community there that I belong to, because that’s the kind of stories I’d never read while growing up.”

Three Filipino fellows in 19 years is surely worth cheering about, but I can’t help thinking—having seen the talent out here—that we (and other homegrown Southeast Asians) could be sending more fictionists to Norwich, and Nathan’s triumph is a welcome reminder of that wonderful possibility. For more information about the David T. K. Wong Fellowship, look here: https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship.

(Pictured on top are the Wong Fellows at a reunion with David T. K. Wong in London, 2008. Image of Nathan Go courtesy of UEA.)

Penman No. 253: Wealth You Can’t Buy

IMG_1773Penman for Monday June 5, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.

 

 

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 248: Ring in the Old

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Penman for Monday, April 24, 2017

 

 

IN A GENERATION preoccupied with newness, it’s a refreshing surprise to find young people engrossed with things far older than themselves, and that’s exactly what Beng and I stumbled upon a few Saturdays ago when we entered Warehouse Eight on Chino Roces Ave. in Makati. There was absolutely no hint of it from the outside, but going up a flight of stairs, we stepped into a large room filled to the brim with antiques—typewriters, watches, cameras, bicycles, turntables, vinyl records, books, eyeglasses, and, yes, pens!

This was the Istorya Vintage Appreciation Fair, an event organized by entrepreneur and collector Lennie Dionisio (whom I’d never met before, so had the temerity to ask “What’s your day job?”). I’d come to show some of my vintage pens, of course, but I made a beeline for a tableful of Lennie’s fabulous vintage typewriter collection—a passion she shares with another friend of mine, George Mamonluk. I proudly showed off a picture of my 1922 Corona 3 which I’d found in San Francisco and hand-carried home—if you get a high from inhaling typewriter lubricant, you’d be my kind of person. But the piece de resistance of Lennie’s spread wasn’t even a typewriter but a lovely Adana letterpress machine of the kind that I’d been dreaming of, for hand-printing pages of poetry on paper you could run your fingers over and feel every word.

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It was that kind of vanished romance that tingled in my bones as I looked over the exhibits (most items in which were for sale), elated by the discovery that they had been brought over not by doddering seniors like me but by a new crop of millennials who actually knew how to use a Rolleiflex TLR or a Sheaffer Snorkel. Quite a few even came over to the booth we operated for the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, asking to see how flexible nibs and lever fillers worked. There’s hope for this generation yet!

For about a decade, Beng and I used to indulge our mania for the old stuff on our October sorties to New York and its fabulous flea markets and thrift shops (that’s right, I’d save up the thousands for the plane fare so we could poke around looking for $5 bargains in dusty piles of bric-a-brac). Those fun times may be over as our knees themselves turn vintage and as our budgets dry up, but with local shows like Istorya popping up, who needs Manhattan? I can’t wait to see the next edition of Istorya and to step back into the land of the lost.

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THERE’S ANOTHER way of bringing the past into the present, and that’s by remanufacturing old classics into new and modernized versions that exude vintage charm but perform with almost digital precision.

I was reminded of this last month when our friend Celia, who shared our footloose ways with her late husband Rene, introduced me to a very interesting pair of locally-made grandfather clocks. I have a small trove of vintage wristwatches, mostly from the 1950s, that I manually wind up every few months or so—and I have to admit to a clock fetish in that I’ll likely have at least two clocks in one room so I can see the time wherever I look—but I have yet to acquire my first grandfather clock.

I’ve seen quite a few of these in homes and museums abroad, and what’s fascinating about them is their imposing size and that deep, sonorous chime they produce to announce the hours.

Apparently, according to Celia, there’s a company out here somewhere that makes several models of grandfather clocks, following the tradition of furniture artisan Simplicio Adriano, a Pampanga native who started his craft in 1911. The company is called SAFM, and it’s now managed by Simplicio’s great-grandsons Alfred and Francis.

I’ve yet to visit the factory, but Celia tells me that a seven-foot model they call the RAGA 70 has a chain-driven, Westminster chime movement that strikes every quarter and every hour. The movement is made by Hermle of Germany, considered the leading clock and clock movement manufacturer in the world. The cabinet is made of Philippine hardwood and comes in mahogany, dark walnut or light walnut finishes.

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If tall clocks and loud chimes float your boat, text or call the manufacturer at 0905-2765288 or email adriano.grandfather.clocks@gmail.com.

 

A FEW years ago, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the Iligan National Writers Workshop at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) in Iligan City, and I’m happy to see that despite all the odds it’s had to face, the workshop is moving along just fine and will be holding its 24th session from May 29 to June 2 under the stewardship of stalwarts Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez. Co-sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), Iligan is an important hub in the national network of workshops designed to encourage new young writers in all languages and genres.

Eighteen writing fellows from all over the country have been selected for Iligan. From Luzon come: Poetry (English) Bernard Kean Mappala Capinpin; (Filipino) Joey Alcones Tabula and Vanessa Anne Joice Tanada Haro; Fiction (Filipino) Lenin Carlos Macaraig Mirasol; and Drama (English/Filipino): Fatrick Romo Tabada;

From the Visayas: Creative Non-Fiction (English) Eric Gerard de la Cruz Ruiz; Poetry (English) Andrea de Guzman Lim and Gay Josephine Valles;  (Sebuano) Hannah Marie Ramirez Aranas; and Fiction (English): Nino Augustine Masa Loyola; and

From Mindanao: Poetry (Filipino): Delfin Hingco Mundala; Loi Vincent Caparos Dériada; (Sebuano) Mildred Eran Garcia; Creative Non-fiction(English): Silvana Erika Nasser Navaja; and Drama (English/Filipino) Kwesi Ian Jay Miguel Junsan.

This year’s Boy Abunda Writing Fellow is Waray poet Reynel Mahilum Ignacio; the Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow is Sebuano poet Kim Ashley B. Escalona; and the Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow is Maranao poet Alican Mendez Pandapatan.

I haven’t read these young writers’ works, but the mere idea of, for example, someone continuing to write Maranao poetry in this global century is heartwarming. That probably won’t happen in Diliman, which is another good reason why a homegrown workshop in Mindanao is absolutely necessary for the enrichment and preservation of our national culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

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Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

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Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this comes from the essay itself:

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 241: The Long and Short of Summary

240_f_86352387_qpckndkcg4djurkk2t8g8niysulm2iejPenman for Monday, March 6, 2017

 

 

IN DEALING with communications and reports drafted by my office staff and by my students, one problem I often encounter is the writer’s inability or reluctance to summarize needlessly long passages.

Some of that happens simply because the writer doesn’t know how to digest material, which further means that he or she can’t distinguish between the relative levels of importance of different statements. Another reason is sheer fear, especially in authoritarian or sensitive environments where messing with someone else’s text could land you in major trouble.

But we all need summaries, good ones, of everything out there. We simply don’t have the time to slog through every document that comes our way in this information-saturated age.

Good summarizing takes sharpness of mind and boldness of spirit. It means you know which parts you can cut without doing damage to the heart of the piece and that you can stitch the snippets together to form a new whole. You’d be surprised by the compelling clarity that shines through a properly summarized paper, by how much latent energy pulses in tautened prose.

I had an interesting conversation last year with a Filipino graduate student in Seoul. I was recalling the time more than 40 years ago when, as a junior writer-editor employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, I wondered why the current Five-Year Development Plan I was editing was as fat as a phone book, while the South Korean plan I had as a reference was no thicker than a Perry Mason paperback. And look, I told the student, where Korea had gone, minus the verbosity.

And then the student told me something that explained away the mystery of that anorexic document. In Korea, he said, managers and CEOs put a premium on brevity; the higher up the ladder your document went, the more condensed it was expected to be, to spare the bosses the chore of plowing through pages of data. Recommendations were to be brief and to the point.

It’s surprising because it seems so counterintuitive. For most of us, less is simply less and more is surely more. Our normal tendency is to add, to elaborate, to complicate until we can barely remember what our original thought was. We Pinoys especially have a tradition of rhetorical bombast that employs big words without meaning much, and we’ve mastered the art of filling dead air with, well, dead sounds.

This is why speakers in school programs (and the people who introduce them) take forever to say the most prosaic things; people walk up to the mike in the open forum and feel compelled to tell their life story before finally asking a question, if they do at all. We love to talk for the sake of talking, cluttering our prose with the same verbal indiscipline.

For me, a good summary begins, first of all, with the writer’s grasp of the main ideas running through the piece he or she is summarizing. This requires a thorough read-through of the original and an understanding of its basic argument. Without this sympathetic comprehension, attempts at trimming it down to size are bound to fail or to at least be misdirected. The best book reviewers are great at being able to reduce a thick volume to its thesis. That’s because they’re not just idle English majors like you and me, but are very likely experts in the field who may know more about the writers and their subjects than the writers themselves.

Since most of us aren’t such experts, the next best thing would be to take careful notes of what’s being said—identifying (and even physically highlighting) main points in the text and understanding why they’re being made. These points can then be paraphrased, condensed, and sequentially presented.

A good summary is also mindful and possibly reflective of the tone of the original—whether businesslike, contemplative, combative, or comic, for example. Nowhere should the summarizer’s own opinions or biases intrude, unless one is summarizing one’s own material.

This leads me to one of my pet peeves, the abuse of PowerPoint by speakers who don’t know the difference between a talk and an AV script. These are the people who will turn their whole speech into slides that are little more than blocks of text and unreadable graphs, and who will do little more than read everything that’s being flashed onscreen.

We might not mind this practice too much if these speakers were audibly engaging, knowing which phrases to emphasize or when to pause for dramatic effect. In many cases, however, this ritual is performed by zombie-like drones who seem to have no inkling that they actually have an audience behind them (behind, because they’re reading off the screen)—and an audience that can read as well as, if not faster than, them. PowerPoint presentations are meant to be verbal and visual summaries of whatever is being pitched.

There’s little excuse for a long paragraph to be splashed across the screen where a picture and four or five memorable words will do. That paragraph will be forgotten as soon as the slide vanishes, but the image will linger long afterwards.

Of course you’ll always lose a little something even in the best summary, but let’s put it this way: the best summaries will make the reader want to read the rest of the material, which is what you probably wanted to happen in the first place.

(Image from fotolia.com)