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)

Penman No. 239: A Pinoy Pangalay in Hyderabad

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Penman for Monday, February 20, 2017

 

 

I’M GOING to turn over most of my column this week to a colleague at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, the playwright and essayist Luna Sicat Cleto, whom I commissioned (badgered is the more appropriate word, since I’m not paying her anything more than my deepest thanks) to do a report on a recent mission that she and a group of Filipino writers undertook in Hyderabad, India.

The original invitation to attend the Hyderabad International Literary Festival and organize a delegation as a “guest nation” had been sent to me, but since I couldn’t work it into my schedule, I asked performance poet and Philippine High School for the Arts director Vim Nadera to put together and lead a troupe of Filipino writers and artists. And what a delegation it turned out to be. With Vim went fellow writers Jun Cruz Reyes, Victor Sugbo, Luna Sicat Cleto, Jeena Rani Marquez, Christine Godinez Ortega, Hope Sabanpan-Yu, and Neila Balgoa. Spoken word poet Kooky Tuason also came along, as did Ifugao poet Dumay Solinggay. Dance and music were represented by Cecilia Artates and Marty Tengco. Let’s hear the rest from Luna:

“According to Dr. T. Vijay Kumar, Professor of English at Osmania University in Hyderabad, the Philippine delegation was the biggest group they had received so far, having hosted five nations since it began in 2010. The other four were Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, and Singapore.

“Dr. Kumar, alongside the novelist Pranesh Prasad, had encouraged the attendance of the Filipino writers. Prasad graced the Iligan workshop in 2013 as guest writer and also attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Manila in 2015.

Since then he has felt a strong affinity with Filipinos. Prasad was happy with the performance of the delegation, saying that ‘I think we achieved our goal of creating awareness about Philippines in India, given the number of newspapers that covered your participation and all the people contact that has resulted. It bodes well for India-Philippines cultural relations.’

“Prasad’s observation was echoed by Jun Cruz Reyes, who felt that it was refreshing to read about the convergence of so many talents and minds in the festival, which was not limited to the literary field alone. Topics as diverse as politics, history, sports, and popular culture were taken up in parallel sessions. While some German industrial designers discussed the sustainable technology of chai shops, a Mumbai-based young entrepreneur talked about Instagram ruminations, while another focused on the Indian graphic novel. There were talks given by poet laureates Ashok Payjevi alongside investigative journalists like Josy Joseph and Harsh Mander, and discussions of translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Tamil stories alongside debates about the effects of the partition and human trafficking. Particiapns got to see martial-arts demonstrations of the shilambam as well as India’s latest art films. The plurality of HILF is based on its inclusive ethos: it is multilingual and multidisciplinary, and the multiple speakers—writers, artists, scholars, filmmakers, journalists, publishers—represent a wide range of creative fields. Hyderabad has been described as a ‘teeming urban masala of color and commerce,’ and indeed the city evokes the ancient prosperity of its Mughal past, alongside its twin reputation as a Silicon Valley of India.”

Luna adds that “Indeed, it is fortuitous that the Philippines was invited now, while both countries are assessing their relative positions in the global literary and cultural scene. It also became a chance to rediscover the bonds between India and the Philippines, evident in the many words from Sanskrit that are in the Filipino’s vocabulary: budhi, guro, and diwata, among others. While India has a strong tradition of writing in English because of the colonial legacy of British education, the Philippines also has a strong contingent of Filipino writers in English. India’s raucous democratic plurality in religion and politics is echoed in the Philippines’ plurality of religion, politics, cultural traditions and languages. The many languages of India are celebrated in the Hyderabad International Literary Festival, and for this year, its focus was on the Tamil language. One artist, the great Indian dancer Leela Samson, who performed in ‘Past Forward,’ said that it is about time that India listened to its many voices, and let the major languages of India be the conduits of thoughts and ideas.

“Samson’s sentiments were echoed in the Philippine delegation’s performance, aptly titled ‘Philippine Pangalay: Karmic Harvest.’ Vim Nadera strutted onstage, dressed in an all-white suit complete with an American flag tie. Channeling Donald Trump and the doomsday rhetoric of born-again speakers, he pronounced that he was dedicating his performance to the memory of National Artist Francisco Arcellana. ‘Close all open things, Lord/Open all closed things,’ Nadera intoned, appropriating Elvis’ crotch choreos with riffs from the musical Hair. The crowd was energized. He then introduced Jeena Marquez, who performed a powerful dramatic monologue based on Rizal’s epilogue in El Filibusterismo, a re-enactment of Maria Clara’s leap to death as witnessed by two civilians. Romancing Venus was the next act, which featured Tuason’s slapshock verbal performance, enhanced by Tengco’s drumming and Artate’s pangalay. But the real star of the delegation was Dumay Solinggay, who channeled the anguish of epic chanters with her poignant chorus of  ‘We must remember, we must remember…’ Solinggay did not only echo the trauma of the postcolonial subject, who may feel trapped in identities and names arbitrarily assigned, in specific situations like the call-center agents or the inevitable loss of memory in the fast pace of urban life. When she danced at the last part of her ensemble, her body resembled the paroxysm of the chanters in a trance.”

What can I say? I wish I’d been there with them in Hyderabad. The name alone sounds like magic, and I’m sure the place and the experience were every bit just that.

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(Photos by Jeena Marquez and Hope Yu)

Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

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(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

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(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

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Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

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“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

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But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

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Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

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This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

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Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

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The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

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At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

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To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

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and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

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Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

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And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

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Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

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But words can also heal.

Words can save.

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Words make law.

Words make war.

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Words make money.

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Words make peace.

Words make nations.

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Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

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Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

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Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou

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Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.

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Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.

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I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”

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Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).

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We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.

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Link

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Penman for Monday, November 17, 2016

 

 

IT WASN’T on the official itinerary, but I have to report that the personal highlight of our recent participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair didn’t happen at the fair itself, or even in Frankfurt, but about an hour and a half away by train and bus. This was a plan that a few of us had hatched even before we left Manila: we’d do our jobs and put in our hours in the Philippine booth, then take a day off in pursuit of a pilgrimage that any Pinoy in Frankfurt shouldn’t forgo: a visit to Jose Rizal’s haunts in Heidelberg and neighboring Wilhelmsfeld.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Pepe, not just for his writing skills and love of country (I won’t mention his charming ways with the ladies) but also his wanderlust which made him, in my book, the first truly global Filipino. Considering that he didn’t live very long, he was still able to do more and see more than most of us do in a full lifetime. The intensity of that life and the excellence he sought at every turn have been enduring inspirations for me, and I’ve realized that sometimes by design and sometimes by serendipity, I’ve been tracking his footsteps around the world.

In 2009, my wife Beng and I, along with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry, had booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco, where it took a waiter (a fellow Pinoy, of course) to inform us that Rizal had stayed there during his only visit to America in May 1888, an event commemorated by a marker just outside the hotel, which we had missed.

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Two years later, Beng and I visited Rizal’s well-kept shrine in Dapitan, where he had spent four fruitful years in exile before being transported back to Manila. How poignant it must have been to catch the sunset along the bay with Josephine Bracken, inflamed and torn by two of the strongest passions to afflict any writer—love and revolution.

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And then in 2014, again with Beng, Demi, and Jerry, I sought out some of Rizal’s locales in Spain, from Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the Castell de Montjuic in Barcelona, where Rizal had been detained before being shipped back to Manila for trial and eventual execution. (The castle has designated a room, Sala Rizal, in his honor and in memory of the many political prisoners who had spent time in that place—ironically, one of the best spots from which to appreciate the city’s beauty.)

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There was no question, therefore, that I would make that sortie to Heidelberg, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Five other sojourners made up our group: National Artist Virgilio “Rio” Almario and his wife Lyn, their daughter Ani and her husband, the geologist CP David, and the poet and Inquirer staff writer Ruey de Vera. Lyn and Ani were attending the book fair on behalf of Adarna House and the Book Development Association of the Philippines, but we all agreed that a visit to Heidelberg was well worth a day off.

Rizal had stayed in various places in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld for much of 1886, marking his 25th birthday there, studying ophthalmology with tutors like Dr. Otto Becker while improving his command of German. When he moved to Wilhelmsfeld—a 12-kilometer walk through the forest that Rizal essayed and even today a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Heidelberg—Rizal boarded with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family, and it was there that he completed the manuscript of Noli Me Tangere (a feat that, achieved at 25, still astonishes me when I consider the juvenilia most of us still produce at that age).

Rio Almario had visited Heidelberg once before but not Wilhelmsfeld, and the rest of us were total newcomers to the area (I had traveled around Germany and reported on it extensively in 2004, but hadn’t gone this far). So it was with giddy enthusiasm that we assembled at the Frankfurt Bahnhof and boarded the 9:20 train to Heidelberg. About an hour later, we were in Heidelberg, where we made a beeline for the information kiosk just outside the train station to buy bus tickets to Wilhelmsfeld. “Filipinos?” asked a clerk at the kiosk, apparently familiar with posses of brown-skinned Asians asking about Jose Rizal, and he whipped out a xeroxed guide to Rizal’s known habitations in Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld. There were about six of these sites in Heidelberg alone, so we decided to go for Wilhelmsfeld first, given our limited time.

After a pleasant ride along the Neckar River and the lovely autumn scenery (punctuated only by an unexpected stop during which two European bison appeared fairytale-like out of the woods), we reached Wilhelmsfeld, which announced itself in a most unusual way, with a Filipino flag flying abreast of its German counterpart in front of the Rathaus, or town hall (Wilhelmsfeld and Calamba are sister cities). We were in search specifically of the statue that sculptor Anastacio Caedo had made of Rizal in a special park devoted to him. An initial query led us astray, to the wrong church and into a drizzle of hail (magical story elements we couldn’t have invented to accentuate our pilgrim status), until a kind lady pointed us in the right direction.

Many shuddering steps later, we arrived at a park overlooking the valley, in the center of which stood Rizal’s figure, easily a foot larger than life, as it deserved to be. We celebrated by opening a bottle of Potsdamer beer which CP had brought along for the occasion, and raising a toast to the great wanderer who had preceded us by 130 years but who yet challenged us, as it were, to write a Noli for our own times. After lunch back in Heidelberg, we prepared for another long trek to find his clinic at Bergeimherstrasse, only to realize that we had gotten off on exactly that street, and were only steps away.

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Weeks later, a totally unexpected bonus followed. I was in Singapore covering the Writers Festival when fictionist Cathy Torres—a diplomat who was serving with the Philippine Embassy in Berlin after a stint in Singapore, and had also joined us in Frankfurt—casually mentioned to me that Rizal had taken note in his letters of the black elephant statue beside the old Parliament House where the festival was being held. As it turned out, Rizal had visited Singapore four times—the first time in 1882, on what also happened to be the 21-year-old’s first trip abroad. The tip prompted me to look up Rizal’s Singaporean connections—immortalized in a marker near the Cavenagh Bridge, beside the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Deng Xiaoping—but what floored me was discovering that he had once stayed at the old Hotel de la Paix at the corner of Coleman and Hill Streets—long gone, but since replaced by the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel, where I was staying. I felt like I was no longer following Rizal, but he was following me.

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In Dapitan, he had written: “I left, scarcely a youth, my land and my affections, and vagrant everywhere, with no qualms, with no terrors, squandered in foreign lands the April of my life.” If this was squandering one’s youth, what a glorious waste it was.