Penman No. 372: Love Letters from Rody (2)

IMG_1085.jpeg

Penman for Monday, October 14, 2019

 

TWO MONDAYS ago, I featured the first of two typewritten love letters that I had found, folded and unsent, between the pages of an old book from the 1950s that I recently bought. As I mentioned then, I felt embarrassed to suddenly become privy to someone else’s most personal displays of affection, but was at the same time transfixed by the literary qualities of the writer’s prose.

I’m aware that back then, it wasn’t unheard of to employ templates—form love letters commissioned and sold in books by enterprising publishers to help verbally-challenged Romeos along. Somewhere in my collection is one such book, from the early 1900s and in profusely ornate Tagalog, offering letters for every possible occasion along the courtship timeline—including a letter to the girl’s parents, imploring their tolerance and understanding. By the 1950s and 1960s—as I recall from my sorties to the bookshops and newsstands along Avenida Rizal—these were available in English (thankfully I felt no need to resort to them, although my versions probably made their recipients cringe).

Our present suitor, who signs his name “Rody,” clearly dipped into his own trove of metaphors in addressing his unnamed beloved, with such choice passages as “rich jewels in an Ethiop’s ear.” From this second letter, we can divine that he had gone to college to study Medicine, had been confined at the hospital where his beloved worked and nursed him back to health, only to afflict him with a fatal passion; in despair over failing his school exams and hearing nothing from her (despite which he takes her silence for love), he joins the US Navy, and is now on the eve of sailing for San Diego (where, ironically, this column is being written, on our annual visit to our daughter Demi). Let’s hear it from Rody, and pray that whoever he (and she) was, he found love and peace in his later life.

Dear ————–,

 It has been a long time since my last letter and the urge in me to write you is at its topmost height. Your lengthy silence is an inducement for me to break the ice—that silence made me jump to the conclusion that—you love me.

 I am the happiest guy nowadays in the whole wide world. No poet can best express in words the joy and bliss deep in my heart. Not even the immortal Allan Poe who can speak to the crags of the sea.

 You are the only girl I cared for and you knew that even from the very start. You are the girl who can make the torch of my life burn bright with clear and unending light. You are the only girl who can walk straight with me through this vale of tears.

 Although it is despicable and unbecoming for me, I cannot help but be humble and confide in you my downfall. I vowed never to let you in on my secret but vows can never be sealed for life and vows are made to be broken. Besides many say that sincerity is truth. Now have this: I incurred failures the last semester and am debarred from the College of Medicine.

 There really is no one to blame but me. I wasted a lot of time on nonsensical things that I never had a minute to devote to my studies. Time is precious for medical students and that I know. I was not a conscientious student and can never be one. Once I said to myself: you won’t make a good doctor anyway, so why bother to be one?

 After the inevitable thing happened I became desperate and disgusted with life. I began to complain to the heavens why life was treating me this way. I felt the urge of ending my life, but consolation came in the nick of time and only then I knew that God was with me. That consolation was in the form of silence and the silence meant you love me.

 You gave me hope amidst my tears and misery. You nursed my illness and brought me back to life. Now I feel a new light guiding me back to life. Only now I know that God is my co-pilot.

 I have no more interest to pursue my studies. I no longer have the appetite to swallow the hectic life of a college student. I got my fill of studies that I joined the United States Navy.

 Our ship is leaving for San Diego by next month to this date. The beacon of the Navy is timely but sad. I miss you more than anything else. I will miss that comely look and that Mona Lisa smile. But bear in mind that you will always be the girl I love.

 I long to talk to you and bid you good-bye but time is stingy and never gave me a chance. Last Sunday I intended to visit you at the Nurses’ Home and discuss with you matters at hand but you were on duty. I can make it this Sunday, will you be off by then?

 I hope this letter will reach you before the time, and see you then.

 Lovingly yours,

 Rody

 

Penman No. 371: Love Letters from Rody (1)

IMG_1124.jpg

Penman for Monday, September 30, 2019

 

IT’S NOTHING short of embarrassing to stumble upon other people’s intimacies—you know you shouldn’t be looking and you try to turn your eyes away, but you also know you’ll be taking at least a peek, as the curious and fallible humans we all are.

More than fifteen years ago, moving into a new home on campus previously occupied by an eminent professor who had retired and moved elsewhere, I went out to investigate a blockage in the culvert just outside our house. I was surprised to find a mass of papers, bundled up in plastic, that had apparently been tossed there by whoever had cleaned up the place in preparation for my taking it over. When I took the bundle apart, I realized—to my simultaneous horror and fascination—that these were Professor X’s private papers: her diaries, letters, and notes accumulated and saved over more than half a century of exemplary teaching.

Looking a bit deeper into the penciled entries (I told you I couldn’t resist), I spotted references to a nameless man with whom the writer was clearly enamored—but it was also and just as clearly a stillborn affair, as the writer professed, with fervid anguish, her commitment to a higher, spiritual calling. They would not become another Heloise and Abelard. My hands felt that they had been scorched by the papers, and I decided to turn them over to a friend, a poet who was among her most devoted disciples, for safekeeping.

Two weeks ago, I bought a trove of books from a junk shop in Caloocan, books from the 1930s to the 1950s covering mainly political and historical subjects. I was really just after a good copy of Lope K. Santos’ Banaag at Sikat and Zoilo Galang’s For Dreams Must Die (a 1950 novel based on another star-crossed romance, between Jose Rizal and Leonor Rivera. When I began sorting out the lot, I noticed an unusual thickness in a book from 1953 about the struggle for Indochina, and fished out, from between pages 172 and 173, a folded letter; several chapters later I found yet another letter.

They were typewritten letters, probably drafts, with scribbled corrections between the lines—undated, unaddressed, unsigned, and unsent—written by someone who identifies himself in the second letter only as “Rody” (no, not that Rody). I was struck by the quality and quaintness of the prose; these were letters obviously crafted by an educated man, meant for a distant an unnamed beloved. All we can firmly gather from them is that she was a nurse in a hospital, while he—well, let’s read the first letter first, and take it from there. The second letter—and my speculations—will follow in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned.

IMG_1091.jpg

Maybe you will be surprised on receiving this letter—a letter unexpected at the most inopportune time. I was overwhelmed by a magic urge which I cannot understand or cope with. It induced my pen to scribble the words coming out of my heart.

The end of the world and the complete annihilation of mankind is at hand, they say. My love for you will never end through eternity. It will be enduring as the tides of time, as lasting as the sacred flames kindled by my burning heart.

Love works so many wonders, lovers say. It can deviate the earth from its course, it can make the giddy heaven fall. It can teach the torches to burn bright like rich jewels in an Ethiop’s ear. My love for you is as deathless as Gabriel’s love for Evangeline, as infinite as Romeo’s love for Juliet.

Three years elapsed like a click. For three years, I waited in patience for a ray of light on my love affair. During this period, I found the right meaning of love and can define it even in my sleep.

Through the years I found neither laughter nor peace. I cannot associate the past, the present nor the future. Will my future be bright? Or will it be gloomy as the present and the past? You are the key to the answer. My life will be meaningless and valueless without you. No one but you can bring light to my world of darkness. Nothing but love can best cure my aching heart.

 Each night I go to the hospital, just to have a glimpse of you. Wanting to talk to you for a moment which I know is an impossibility. My eyes just speak for me in the passing glance.

Each night I sink in a sea of speculation. In the maintaining silence, I think of you. I cannot help but ask myself, what are my chances? Will the answer be ‘yes’ or ‘no’? I think of the fatal ‘no’ as the answer. I think of yes. Each of them is a sentence complete in itself. Each of them is a word which can mean everything in my life—words which when heard can shatter heaven and earth.

Maybe during these three long years, you have known me from head to toe better than any living soul on earth. And it is not far from impossible that you have reached a decision.

I love you more than anything else. Do you love me too? Your silence on the matter can only signify four simple words—“I love you too.”

I am the captive of yoru charm, the prisoner of your heart. I am standing before the judgment chair—before the beauteous goddess of love.

Hoping that your sound discretion guide you in your decision, I pause

 

Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

MatterCover.png

Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

Voyager and Other Fictions cover 02 062819.jpeg

I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

70482837_2759972480728101_3571365147433762816_n.jpg

Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

L1090932.jpg

Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

IMG_0107.jpg

There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 368: Scavenging a Smith-Corona

IMG_9518.JPGPenman for Monday, August 26, 2019

 

I HAD the privilege of being mentioned last week in the column of my historian-friend and fellow connoisseur of all things older than ourselves, Ambeth Ocampo, for having facilitated his acquisition of a 1962 Ferrari-red typewriter sporting a rare cursive typeface. Ambeth and I had run into each other at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival in Makati, where we had separate events but both attended the visiting Gina Apostol’s talk on her new novel Insurrecto. Strangely enough, the last time we met was also in last year’s PRWF, where we realized to our mutual amusement that we were both carrying Agatha Christie fountain pens. (For the record, he has also been a lifelong penman.)

Occasionally—like I suppose his legions of fans do—I email him for his professional opinion of my recent antiquarian pickups, like a French book from 1706 about the Jesuits in “Nouvelle Philippines,” which got me all excited until Ambeth burst my bubble by telling me that “Nouvelle Philippines” didn’t exactly mean Manila or even Mindanao but a group of little islands out there in the stormy Pacific. That’s why I always hasten to explain that he’s the scholar and I’m the scavenger, although the things that he himself has scavenged—like Emilio Jacinto’s silver quill pen—are pretty fabulous.

At the PRWF, he asked me if I knew of any cursive (or “script”) typewriters for sale; I said I did not, but would ask a collector-friend, Dennis Pinpin, if he had any. I have about two dozen typewriters (yegads) in my stable, and only one of them has script (that’s it up there, an SCM Classic 12), but Dennis has over a hundred, so he had to have one or two to spare. Indeed, when I asked Dennis, he did—a 1980s Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a sturdy German workhorse on which I had begun my first novel back in graduate school, and an older, fire-red Olivetti Studio. Which one should I get, Ambeth asked me. The Olivetti, I said, will likely have softer keys. The two gents met in a burger joint, had an enjoyable conversation, and a red machine crossed the table for what I knew was a bargain, Dennis being a soft touch for serious writers interested in having some fun with noisy old contraptions.

68253810_2592140314151181_4481874673470013440_n.jpg

But that wasn’t the end of my typewriter week. Like all true collectors, I keep telling myself “Okay, that was the last one,” knowing perfectly well that I’m lying through my teeth. For a couple of days midweek, I got all worked up about acquiring a 1920s Remington that had belonged to a Bulakeño associate of Jose Rizal; I had an agreement with the seller on the price and meeting place, only to be later told that some mysterious stranger had bought it from under my nose. (Ambeth, was that you?) I was beside myself with dismay and disgust, muttering oaths about palabra de honor, but then (like many of you would do, fess up) I sought to soothe my injured feelings by looking for something else to buy. I got lucky over the weekend on a sortie to Bangkal, picking up two lovely paintings by minor masters for the same coin I would have handed over for the typewriter.

And it still didn’t end there, because—idly scanning the online ads while desperately finishing another corporate history (which puts the butter on my bread, and allows me the folly of these pursuits)—my eyes fell on a bright, clean-faced Smith Corona in a crinkle-paint finish they used to call “Desert Sand,” being offered by a seller not too far from me for the price of, shall we say, a couple of dinner-and-movie dates with Beng (sorry, Beng!). I PM’ed the seller, who said the machine had been reserved by someone else. Drat, I thought, but nobly messaged back that I respected dibs, and that if that deal fell through, then I was next in line.

The next day I got a message that the other fellow had failed to show up, and that the Smith Corona was mine to take: destiny! Now I should admit that this was going to be my sixth Smith Corona, the typewriter equivalent of either gluttony or a very unimaginative diet, but as all true collectors know (I really should have an official True Collectors T-shirt made), redundancy is never a problem, except to spouses (and thankfully Beng prefers redundancy in my collectibles to redundancy in spouses). I drove out and picked up the machine, which was being sold out of a Japan-surplus stall in Tandang Sora.

IMG_0230.jpg

Back home I gently opened the case, and began drooling at the sight of a near-pristine Smith Corona Standard, whose serial number marked it as having been made in 1941; it had obviously never seen any action, like firing off a desperate message from a bunker in Bataan or Okinawa. After I had wiped and oiled it, the soft clatter of keys striking the platen, probably for the first time in decades, filled the air in my home office like Debussy’s Reverie. (That’s our apu-apuhan Buboy below, trying out the new toy.) How do these beauties, I would later tweet, find their way to ugly old me? I imagined Ambeth across the city, pecking away at his Olivetti, maybe wondering if Rizal had ever used a Hammond or a Blickensderfer.

IMG_0241.jpeg

(Photo of Ambeth Ocampo courtesy of Dennis Pinpin.)

 

 

Penman No. 367: Revisiting Paeng Salas

75273.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 19, 2019

 

FEW MILLENNIALS would be familiar with the name today, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafael Montinola Salas—Paeng to many—was every bit the man a younger person would have wanted to become: smart, accomplished, attractive, very much in the center of things, privy to power and influence and yet incorruptible and prone to poetry. And like many men who blaze an incandescent streak across the dark sky of history, Paeng Salas died young. He wasn’t even 59 in March 1987 when he was felled by an apparent heart attack in his hotel room in Washington, DC, while preparing for a meeting, ensuring no end to speculation on what he might have been—and what the Philippines itself might have become—had he lived longer. At the University of the Philippines, where he studied law, he recruited another provinciano into the Sigma Rho fraternity, and though older than Paeng by five years, that recruit named Juan Ponce Enrile saw Paeng as a mentor and would later call Salas “the best President we never had.”

To the uninitiated, the Negros-born Paeng Salas was one of the first so-called “technocrats,” a bright, idealistic, well-educated young man who found himself roped into and rising quickly within the ranks of government, first as a volunteer for the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, then as a campaigner and yet later Executive Secretary for Ferdinand Marcos, for whom he led a highly successful rice self-sufficiency program. Disillusioned by corruption within the Marcos regime, Salas gave up any domestic political ambition to join the new United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in New York, and became known as “Mr. Population” for his impassioned commitment to curbing unchecked population growth, which also led to the creation of the Commission on Population (POPCOM) in 1969. He almost became UN Secretary General in 1981—were it not for the lack of support from Malacañang, which had not forgiven him for his desertion. After EDSA, there was talk of Salas joining Cory’s Cabinet—but just weeks later, he was dead.

I’m writing about Paeng Salas because, last week when he would have turned 92, the POPCOM under its Executive Director Dr. Jeepy Perez launched a new biography of Salas titled A Millennial Man for Others: The Life and Times of Rafael M. Salas, co-authored by me and Carmen “Menchu” Sarmiento (whom I have to thank for doing most of the heavy lifting). In my remarks at the launch, I said that Paeng Salas was a biographer’s dream, not only because of the breadth of his accomplishments but also because of the quality of the man himself and of his life.

Speaking across the decades to our times and leaders today, Salas was the ultimate public servant who was not only learned and refined—among his works are two published collections of finely crafted haiku—but, just as importantly, was honest and humble. He never used his vast intellect (he loved books and left 11,000 of them to his province’s library) to bludgeon others in a display of arrogance; he was devoted to his wife and family; he was a liberal democrat who believed firmly in freedom and deplored rising authoritarianism.

I was a 19-year-old dropout when I joined the civil service under martial law in 1973 (there weren’t too many jobs left for writers), too late to meet Paeng Salas, who was already with the UN then. But I did become a “Sicat boy” along with the likes of the late Boy Noriega, Poch Macaranas, and Chito Sobrepeña, under NEDA Director-General Gerry Sicat.

At the launch at the DFA were our predecessors, who had begun their distinguished careers working with and for Paeng Salas as their boss—the likes of Jun Factoran, Joe Molano, Vic Ramos, Jimmy Yambao, Agustin Que, and company, who would come to be known as the “Salas boys,” indeed a much longer list you’ll find at the back of the book. Also present were former POPCOM Executive Director Ben de Leon, the premier demographer and Paeng’s comadre Dr. Mercedes Concepcion, and Paeng’s widow, the very lovely and gracious former Amb. Carmelita “Menchu” Rodriguez Salas. I would remark that any man who could describe his wife in a poem as a “cattleya in fluted crystal” had my admiration.

Two weeks before Ninoy Aquino’s assassination in 1983, Paeng Salas spoke at UP, where he received an honorary doctorate, and said this:

“To me, freedom is the highest of all values. It makes possible the interchange of ideas, the expression of an individual’s beliefs, the right to disagree, to put forward alternatives and express them even if one is in error. It is the value that must suffuse all technologies and instruments of direction and control since it is at one and the same time both the precondition and ultimate end of our endeavors….

“I should like to take leave with a question: what can the scholars of this university do to solve the problems of the Philippines when it will be a country of 70 million people? Judge your course of action in the light of our country’s historical experience and with the conviction that your judgement is better when your thought is free—always.”

I wish he were still around to say these things again, today.

 

 

 

Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

harlan-ellison-dead.jpg

Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

IMG_0900.jpg

Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 360: Mechanical Murmurs

IMG_0241.jpeg

Penman for Monday, July 1, 2019

 

I’M SURE no more than a handful of us knew about it, but last June 23 was National Typewriter Day—in America, where Christopher Latham Sholes was granted a patent for the new writing machine in 1868. While Sholes had been preceded by many others touting ideas for some kind of mechanical writing, it was he—along with Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden—who put the first commercially viable typewriter together (in Milwaukee, famous for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz beer, and Briggs and Stratton engines, and briefly my home 30 years ago).

The typewriter would go on from that first Sholes and Glidden machine to revolutionize writing, industry, and communication over most of the 20thcentury, and bring forth names like Remington, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Royal, Olympia, Olivetti, and Hermes, among many others. (Remington, a gun maker, bought out Sholes even before his invention came out.) But few of its descendants would show the charm of that first typewriter (then spelled as two words—and would later refer to the person typing, or the typist, as well), its glossy black front and top bedecked with colorful flowers.

Unknown.jpeg

The Sholes and Glidden came out on the market in July 1874, and it must have been such a hit that not even a year later—writing from Hartford, Conn. on March 19, 1875—a man who signed as “Saml. L. Clemens” would claim that it was causing him too much trouble:

“GENTLEMEN: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could type a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine, but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc. etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker. Yours truly, SAML. L. CLEMENS”

Unknown.jpeg

(The writer, of course, was better known as Mark Twain, whose tongue-in-cheek endorsements must have been much in demand, because almost 30 years later we find him scribbling again from New York, on Oct. 1, 1903, this time on behalf of Conklin fountain pens and their famous “crescent” fillers, which prevented pens from rolling off the table: “Dear Sirs: I prefer it to ten other fountain pens, because it carries its filler in its own stomach, and I cannot mislay even by art or intention. Also, I prefer it because it is a profanity saver; it cannot roll off the desk.”)

It’s probably safe to assume that hundreds of millions of typewriters must have been manufactured since Sholes and Glidden made their debut, spanning all shapes, sizes, and functions, from steel behemoths to plastic cuties, from manual to electric to electronic, offering all manner of type from all-caps to cursive. Of course, word processors and computers effectively buried typewriters and the industry behind them from the 1980s onwards—except for pockets of enthusiasts and personal users, such as the online Antique Typewriter Collectors group to which I and a few other Filipinos belong. (And many thanks to my friend Dennis Pinpin for his post reminding me of National Typewriter Day.)

IMG_9481.jpeg

Eight years ago I wrote a requiem for the typewriter—prematurely, as it turned out—when the Indian manufacturer Godrej and Boyce, which was still making 12,000 machines a year in 2009 mainly for the Indian government, announced that it was closing shop. But lately a new manual typewriter (made, where else, but in China) , has been popping up online under the “We R Memory Keepers” brand; one or two young people I know have picked it up—attracted, no doubt, by its cuddly retro profile and its pastel colors—but I have to hasten to add that based on the expert opinion of my ATC friends, your money would be far better spent on a vintage Olympia or Smith-Corona, given the flimsiness of the WRMK’s construction. In other words, you can’t keep memories with shoddy engineering.

71qf+SpfUaL._SL1024_.jpg

But why even keep using typewriters when computers are so much more available and convenient? For some collectors and enthusiasts, it’s the very isolation of the machine and of the typing itself—removed from email, Facebook, and all such distractions—that recommends it for more thoughtful writing, especially for poems, novels, and personal correspondence. As a professional writer and editor working on half a dozen books at a time, I can’t afford to be that romantic; I love my fountain pens and typewriters, but do all my serious work on my Macs, and typically turn to my Olympia Traveller or my Olivetti 32 to fill out forms and address envelopes.

IMG_0205.jpeg

But then again what have I amassed over 20 typewriters for (don’t say it—one friend has 70, another a hundred), if not for the romance of hearing a mechanical murmur from the past? As with my Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s, I have to wonder what secrets my typers wrote—especially my current pet, an impossibly thin, all-steel Groma Gromina made in East Germany around 1955.

Sometimes I type a line—a nonsense line, anything—just to hear that reassuring “ding!” at the end of it. Can we say, thereby, that life has no meaning—or that the meaning is in the gesture itself?

IMG_9518.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 358: A Feast for Book Lovers (2)

IMG_0731.jpg

Penman for Monday, June 17, 2019

 

LAST SATURDAY, at the 10thPhilippine International Literary Festival sponsored by the National Book Development Board, I joined a panel discussion on “Advanced and Antiquarian Book Collecting,” and since most of you weren’t there to hear me and my fellow panelists Anthony John Balisi and Francis Ong, I’d like to share part of what I said.

As most of my readers know, I’ve long been a collector of fountain pens, especially vintage ones going back to the early 20thcentury. I still have a couple of hundred pens in the collection, which I’ve begun trimming down for the inevitable day when our only daughter will have to deal with all the junk her weird papa left behind. Well, she’s going to have to deal with a lot more than pens, because over the past few years or so, I’ve also begun to amass collections of midcentury paintings, typewriters, and, yes, old books.

I’ll talk about those other afflictions some other time—although I’m sure you see a pattern somewhere there. To focus on book collecting, let’s start with the basic proposition that people buy books to read, usually for education or entertainment. That’s how all book collectors begin: as readers who enjoy the word on the page. But collectors are excited by more than what books contain or mean; they enjoy the book itself as a cultural artifact (and yes, as a tradeable commodity), as a physical manifestation of ideas, and as a work of art and technology in itself.

Book publishing has a long and fascinating history, and important books—like the Gutenberg Bible (1455), our own Doctrina Christiana (1593), and Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891)—are much sought after. Because of the sheer number of books published since Gutenberg, collectors tend to focus on specific areas like art, religion, history, geography, cooking, horticulture, and such.

I’m not even going to pretend that I’ve read or can read many of the books in my library; some are in languages like Latin or old French and Spanish, and while I can guess at some meanings with the help of a dictionary, I’d be better off with a readily available translation. So why do I buy and keep these books? Why even go for, say, first editions when cheap copies of modern editions abound?

It’s because I feel like I’m saving many of these books from oblivion, and that it’s important for future generations to see and appreciate these texts in their original state. In fact, many items in my collection began as props for teaching; you can’t imagine how surprised and thrilled my literature students are when I show them an actual copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1773 when we discuss what the early colonists in America must have been reading, or a 1935 issue of The Prairie Schooner where a story by Manuel Arguilla titled “Midsummer” appeared. It’s what I’ve been calling “the materiality of literature,” its occurrence as a phenomenon as physical and as necessary as the Internet and satellite TV today. Like I told a historian-friend who couldn’t figure out why I was obsessed with finding original texts of easily accessible books, “The object is the object.”

Most of my books these days come from eBay, which gives me access to a global trove of books, many of them obscure and unappreciated where they are. I’ve gotten choice books from as far as Portugal and Guatemala this way. But some of my most remarkable finds have been local pickups—like books signed by Amado V. Hernandez and Atang de la Rama, delivered to me in Intramuros by a seller on a bicycle, or a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, which I bought in Jollibee Philcoa.

For show-and-tell last Saturday, I was happy to share some of these best finds:

  1. An Abridgement of the Notable Works of Polidore Vergil by Thomas Langley. Published in London in 1551, it’s the oldest volume in my collection—found, of all places, in olx.ph, and picked up by me from its seller in Cubao one dark Christmas Eve. (And how does a 470-year-old English book of essays end up in Cubao? Via Paris, where the seller’s mother worked as an OFW, and was gifted by her client with the book.)
  2. El Filibusterismo by Jose Rizal, in the second edition published by Chofre in Manila in 1900. Another local pickup, found online.
  3. America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, another copy of the 1946 first edition, second printing, gifted to me by Greg Brillantes to replace the copy I gave my daughter as a wedding present.
  4. Without Seeing the Dawn by Stevan Javellana, a 1947 first edition, signed by its first owner Zoilo Galang, our first Filipino novelist in English, found in Megamall.
  5. Doctrina Christiana, a facsimile edition published by the Library of Congress in 1947, very soon after this oldest of Philippine books joined the LOC collection, my copy signed by its donor and benefactor, Lessing J. Rosenwald, found on eBay.
  6. Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, a one-of-its-kind compilation put together by a young Leopoldo Yabes in the 1930s, who gifted it to poet Jimmy Abad, who passed it on to me for restoration. (This book, like many others, will be bequeathed to the University of the Philippines.)

If these precious books survive me—and they will—then my mad chase for them will make final and total sense.

IMG_2193.JPG