Penman No. 75: A Writers’ Auction, and Shakespeare in Asia

DalisayBrillantesPenman for Monday, December 2, 2013

THIS IS going to be a very busy and exciting week on the literary front at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. First off, the UP Institute of Creative Writing will be hosting Writers’ Night on Friday, December 6, sustaining what’s become a longstanding annual tradition. Meanwhile, on Thursday and Friday, the Department of English and Comparative Literature will also be hosting its first international conference on “Shakespeare in Asia,” bringing together leading Shakespeare scholars from around the region and the US to affirm the Bard’s continuing relevance to global literature and society.

(It should also be mentioned that Philippine PEN will be holding its annual Congress December 3-4 at the Henry Sy Sr. Hall of De La Salle University, with the theme of “Literature of Concord and Solidarity: The Writer as Peacemaker,” and that FILCOLS—the Filipinas Copyright Licensing Society, Inc., which manages copyright payments for Filipino authors—will be holding its annual general meeting at the Claro M. Recto Hall in UP Diliman at 4 pm, December 6, just before Writers’ Night proper.)

Writers’ Night will consist of three segments, after the FILCOLS meeting: the awarding of the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, which this year will go to a Filipino author writing in English, and the launch of the 7th annual edition of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, which the UPICW publishes. Capping the evening will be a live auction of writers’ memorabilia, featuring donations by writers—including three National Artists—for the benefit of other writers left in dire need by recent disasters in the Visayas. We’ve received word that while no one we knew died in the wake of supertyphoon Yolanda, some writer-friends were badly savaged by the storm; while lives are of course the first priority, the loss to a writer of his or her home, and books and manuscripts among one’s few belongings, can also be deeply traumatic. We hope to be able to address some of these needs through the auction.

Writers’ Night actually debuted with an auction in 1996—I can’t believe it was 17 years ago!—and it was a blast. I came away with several handwritten manuscripts donated by Greg Brillantes and Cirilo Bautista, as well as a novel (Villa Magdalena) signed by Bienvenido Santos. Gina Apostol went home with NVM Gonzalez’s chair.

This year, to spice things up, we’ve solicited donations from National Artists Virgilio Almario (a signed copy of his very first book), Bien Lumbera (two CDs of his songs, also signed), and Frankie Sionil Jose (yet to be confirmed, but hopefully a book or manuscript). Poet Jimmy Abad has very graciously given an important group of his manuscripts, including the handwritten draft of the early poem “Fugitive Emphasis,” and more than a dozen copies of various issues the trailblazing and now rare Caracoa poetry journal from the 1980s. Alma Miclat is donating a copy of the hardbound edition of her late daughter Maningning’s book Voice from the Underworld, signed with her Chinese chop.

And to acknowledge how kind the Fates have been to me this year as they have been harsh to others, I will be donating a fully-functional, like-new Parker Vacumatic fountain pen from the early 1940s, in golden-pearl finish with a smooth, fine 14K nib, a pen I’ve actually written with and written about in my story “Penmanship”; although it’s about 70 years old, the pen is ready to write, and will carry a lifetime personal service warranty from me (if it ever breaks down, I’ll fix it for free). I will also be donating the signed original 11-page typescript of my 1986 short story “The Body,” with my edits on it, and re-donating one of the three Brillantes manuscripts I got in 1996, the signed, edited 6-page typescript of the essay “A Dream of a Red, Green, and Blue Country,” chronicling a visit to Nicaragua. (I’m sure Greg won’t mind; he’s one of the most generous people I’ve known, and I wish he could join us on Friday; come to think of it, if he hadn’t donated these papers to us in 1996, they might’ve joined the soggy mess that Ondoy made of his formidable library.)

Between now and Friday, we’ll expect more donations from writers (who can also donate books for the benefit book sale—it’s been a Writers Night custom to bring and toss a book into a box as a kind of admission fee). Bring your donations over to us at the UPICW in Diliman, or contact our admin officer Ronnie Amuyot at 0922-811-4449 if you need yours to be picked up. We’ll try to be as liberal with the live auction as we can—we’ll take cash, checks, and promissory notes, and you can even leave your bids with or text them to Ronnie before the auction if you’re away. We’ll display some of the choicest items at the Faculty Center before Writers Night itself.

Writers’ Night is free and open to all Filipino writers, writing and literature students, and their friends. Do come and join us at CM Recto Hall, UP Diliman, from 6 pm up this Friday; there’ll be food and drinks, and a lot of goodwill to go around.

JUDY CELINE Ick was an 18-year-old sophomore sporting a punk hairdo when we first met in Prof. Sylvia Ventura’s Shakespeare class in the early 1980s (a returning student, I was a decade older), and sharp as she was, you wouldn’t have known then that she would go on to become UP’s and one of Asia’s top experts on Shakespeare, completing a doctoral dissertation on him at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on a Fulbright grant. I was finishing my own PhD in Wisconsin when she came over, and Judy and I would trade notes, sharing a passion for English Renaissance drama (the over-the-top theatrics of which would put your typical Viva/Regal movie to shame); but while I was just enjoying the verbiage and the swordplay, Judy’s focus on Shakespeare was deep and intense.

That focus has logically led to Dr. Ick convening the first international conference sponsored by the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature on  “Shakespeare in Asia” this Thursday and Friday, Dec. 5-6, also at the Faculty Center.

Like the old days, Judy wrote me a long note to root for her guy: “I’d really like to see our fellow academics and literary aficionados get a taste of what is a burgeoning field on the global Shakespeare scene. Asian Shakespeare is hot!—the subject of many critical collections, journal special editions, conference panels, and now even a tenure-track specialization in some of the more prestigious universities in the world.

“And why not? Around Asia Shakespeare has been produced and reproduced in the most exciting ways. Many regional theater companies continuously stage highly-imaginative versions of Shakespeare in local theater forms like Beijing Opera, Noh, Kathakali, Kabuki, wayang kulit, etc. The Japanese have elevated the Shakespearean anime and manga into an art form. (But then, of course, they also have Shakespearean manga porn (!)—itself a distinct métier.) Bollywood has produced critically acclaimed versions of Macbeth and Othello among other Shakespearean films. Even that award-winning Chinese martial arts film, The Banquet (starring your favorite Zhang Ziyi) is an adaptation of Hamlet. [Penman’s note—I’m more of a Michelle Yeoh fellow.]

“Sadly, many Filipinos are unaware of just how exciting Asian Shakespeare is. Our ability to read Shakespeare in the original, unlike many of our Asian neighbors, has proven both a blessing and a curse. While we are able to revel in the joys of the Bard’s very words, our imagination of his work has been very limited by that Englishness. Exposure to the vibrant work of our neighbors in Asia can change all that.

“A few months back, I had the surreal privilege of spending a day in Taipei with Stephen Greenblatt. We were the only two foreign guests at the inauguration of the Taiwan Shakespeare Association. He was there because, well, he was Stephen Greenblatt—eminent Shakespeare scholar, general editor of the Norton anthologies, longtime chairperson of Harvard’s English department, and author of some of the most influential literary criticism of the twentieth century. At some point, we got to talking about Asian Shakespeare and I was very inspired by what he had to say. ‘The Anglo-American hegemony,’ he asserted, ‘has just about played itself out and Asia is really where everything is now turning. Even Shakespeare.’

“I don’t think you’ll hear a clearer voice for the ‘Anglo-American hegemony’ in our profession than Stephen Greenblatt yet even he recognizes the coming primacy of Asian Shakespeare. I don’t think we Filipinos should get left behind because we have much to contribute. The conference is an important first step as it offers a far-reaching introduction to the field. We’ll have the top Shakespeareans from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the US and India talking about how they play out ‘Asian Shakespeare.’ We’ll also feature films and filmed performances from India, Japan and China. Of course, Filipino artists who have boldly adapted Shakespeare will join in dialogue. The whole affair is capped off with an exciting new theater piece called ‘Have Thy Will,’ a staging of the sonnets devised and directed by Ron Capinding featuring some stellar performers—Ricky Abad, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Dolly De Leon, and Teroy Guzman. More info is available at the conference website:”

Thanks, Judy—and this, Yolanda, is our response to you: a mightier torrent of words, a stronger companionship among writers. To quote one of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets (55), “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

Penman No. 68: Towards a Regional Literary Community

Penman for Monday, Oct. 14, 2013

WE WERE back in Bangkok very recently, about the same time as last year, for another gathering of the newish Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWriters). Around 200 participants from all around the region and from as far as Europe and the US got together from October 3 to 6 in Chulalongkorn University—also the site and host of last year’s conference—to meet on a wide range of literary concerns, most of them bearing on this year’s focus on “The Teaching of Creative Writing.”

Titled “Reaching the World 2013,” the conference was sponsored by the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, Asia Books, and the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University. Bangkok had good reason to host us two years in a row; it had been named World Book Capital for 2013 by Unesco, and was celebrating the honor in the most appropriate way it could. It’s also at Bangkok’s historic Oriental Hotel that the annual SEAWrite Awards for the region’s best writers are given out, and we were welcomed there at dinner by the urbane and popular Governor of Bangkok, Sukhumbhand Paripatra. The son of a prince and educated at Oxford and Georgetown, the governor put everyone at ease by joking that he couldn’t greet us with rhymed couplets, as he was “only a politician” (he had, in fact, taught political science at Chula, Georgetown, and Columbia).

I was one of the organizers of the conference, and was proud to see that a total of 27 Filipino participants (not counting four who had to withdraw at the last minute for various reasons) attended “Reaching the World.” Among others, the delegation included stalwarts of the Philippine literary community such as STAR columnist and former DepEd Usec Isagani Cruz; UST and UP creative writing guru Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo; MSU-IIT professor and poet Christine Godinez-Ortega; DLSU creative writing center head Shirley Lua; UP Press director and poet J. Neil Garcia; University of San Carlos professor Hope Sabanpan-Yu; the Bellagio-bound fictionist Menchu Sarmiento; and Davao Writers Guild president Jhoanna Lynn Cruz.

But more than seeing familiar names on the program, I was especially glad to see that many of our youngest writers on the UP faculty were able to attend as well, including Francis Quina (my deputy at the Institute of Creative Writing), Gabby Lee, Sandra Nicole Roldan, and Vyxz Vasquez. Conferences like APWriters expose writers like them to ideas and influences outside of their own local schools and networks, and sustain the continuity of our commitment to literature from one generation to the next.

APWriters grew out of the old Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership, which we expanded to include translators, in recognition of their crucial role not only in promoting the works and careers of individual authors but also of fostering international understanding through literature. On top of the transition has been the indefatigable Australian writer Jane Camens, who now serves as APWriters’ executive director (read: conference busybody) and who put the conference program together from dozens of proposals we received.

What distinguishes APWriters and its conference format is the informality of the discussions. Proposals for presentations were solicited and accepted, but no lengthy papers were actually read; instead, panelists spoke from notes or off the cuff, achieving our goal of witnessing “writers in conversation” as participants from places as diverse as Norwich and Ho Chi Minh City shed their academic robes, rolled up their sleeves, and spoke from the heart and from memory about the subjects that matter most to writers, translators, and teachers of creative writing.

We don’t mean to be unfriendly towards critics, scholars, and their important work, which after all endeavors to make sense of what we creative writers do. It’s just that there are already enough venues out there for the reading of formal papers (the annual and massively-attended conferences of the Modern Language Association and of the Associated Writing Programs come to mind) on the most obscure and abstruse of literary concerns. I took part in two panels at Chula, as a discussant in the first (which confronted the question of “cloning” in writing workshops and programs) and a moderator in the second (which dealt with how writers budget their time, and with what else they do besides writing).

Aside from Jane, I was glad to see old friends and acquaintances from around the region (or whose work and personal lives bring them regularly to Asia) such as the American writer and workshop specialist Tim Tomlinson, whose book The Portable MFA I’ve recommended to those in need of a crash course in creative writing; the Indonesian translator Eliza Vitri Handayani, who’d sponsored the translation workshop in Jakarta that I’d been a part of just the week before; Kate Griffin of the British Centre for Literary Translation; the Japanese-American fictionist Kyoko Mori, a fellow alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s PhD program; the Indonesian-Chinese-American Xu Xi, who directs the low-residency MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong; the Australian nonfiction and theater expert David Carlin; and, of course, the APWriters chairman himself, the Hong Kong-based Sri Lankan journalist and humorist Nury Vittachi, who’s been behind some of the region’s most significant literary projects, such as the Man Asian Literary Prize and the forthcoming World Readers’ Award.

There were many more, but you get the idea: this is a functioning network of writers and literary specialists from around the Asia-Pacific who’ve come to know each other as friends. And before anyone starts screaming “Another literary cabal!”, let me say, yes, why not, because right now, that’s what we need; there will be a time and an occasion for principled disagreement, but for now our emphasis is on finding and strengthening commonalities of thought, practice, and experience, thereby creating a working community of writers and translators in the region.

The commitment of these people to our emerging network was evidenced by the fact that many participants, including myself, were entirely self-funded. (It also helped, of course, that Bangkok is one of the most accessible, affordable, and tourist-friendly places on the planet.)

The large turnout from the Philippines also reflects the size and the maturity of our literary community and culture. Why shouldn’t we be able to send almost 30 writers to Bangkok? I respectfully disagree with those of us (including my friend Cirilo Bautista, whom I praised and quoted a few weeks ago) who see the Philippines as “a small country.” We’re certainly not—neither in size (at 300,000 sq. km., the same size as Italy), population (in 2005, we were 13th in the world), nor GDP (around 40th to 43rd  out of nearly 200 countries, depending on the year and who’s counting). Our grossly inequitable incomes and power relations are a real problem, but even these haven’t curbed, and may even have encouraged, our expressiveness in art and culture.

Indeed, as we look around the Asia-Pacific, we’ll find that the Philippines has one of the most robust of literary infrastructures, with formal creative writing programs in half a dozen major universities, a workshop tradition going back half a century, and the kind of democratic irrepressibility and irreverence that you can’t find anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

We’re banking on these strengths to put the Philippines more firmly on the global literary map, and we’ve taken a step in that direction by offering to host (after Singapore next year) the 2015 edition of the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators conference. I hope to see many of our Bangkok fellows there, and more.

Penman No. 67: Found in Translation (2)

IMG_2078Penman for Monday, Oct. 7, 2013

AS YOU read this, I should just be returning from Bangkok from another conference of writers and translators, and I’ll be reporting on that encounter next week.

But before anything else—and given this context of world literature in which I’ve been immersed for the past two weeks—let me voice my concern over a development I’d heard about in my absence pertaining to some contemplated changes in our high school curriculum. With our educational system shifting to the K-12 scheme—which I’m in favor of, just to be clear about that—our teachers and school administrators have had to review the curriculum to adjust it to the opportunities presented by the extra class time.

The plan being prepared by the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education was for high school seniors to have two semesters of literature—regional and world literature, meaning, literature by Filipinos outside of Manila and literature written by everybody else. Those of us who teach literature in college were elated to hear about this, because we see how valuable literature is to exposing young Filipino minds to the dynamic realities and challenges of the world around them—beginning with us as still a nation-in-progress, which regional literature helps to build, and with our growing engagement with Southeast Asia and the rest of the planet, which world literature makes sense of and amplifies.

Comes now the news that the DepEd has decided to compress these two semesters into one and to treat both regional and world literature as one subject, which doesn’t make sense for the teachers of these subjects and disperses the intended focus of our concerns in these areas. Makes me wonder what we added those extra semesters for, and, worse, if literature is going to continue to be treated as a disposable frill without any real bearing on national development. Have any of our government officials figured out by now that part of the reason we have a “Zamboanga hostage crisis” or a “Mindanao problem” is that we’ve never really introduced and explained ourselves to ourselves—which is what art and literature do for a people? Let’s hope that the DepEd rethinks its position on this matter, before it’s too late and before we fall farther behind our Asean neighbors in using culture as a foundation for nationbuilding.


AND NOW back to Jakarta, where I spent a few days with a large group of very enthusiastic and talented translators-in-training and with experienced translators and language specialists from as far away as the UK and Norway. As Kate Griffin of the British Centre for Literary Translation put it, the Jakarta workshops were something of a “translation boot camp,” a quick and memorable immersion for the participants into the unique challenges and wonders of translation as a bridge between cultures. (The BCLT promotes the translation of foreign authors into English, in support of what it calls “bibliodiversity,” the opening of minds and hearts through a richer and more accessible fare of reading material.)

As I reported last week, the experience of having parts of my second novel Soledad’s Sister translated into Bahasa Indonesia (where it reads as “Saudara Perambuan Soledad”) reminded me of other fruitful encounters I’d had with my previous translators: Clara Nubile, who translated Soledad into Italian for Isbn Edizioni, Marta Alcaraz, who translated Killing Time in a Warm Place into Spanish for Libros del Asteroide, and Jean-Pierre Aoustin, who translated Soledad into French for Mercure de France. I’d had lively discussions with all of them, especially Jean-Pierre who turned out to be an old Manila hand and who met with me on a recent vacation here.

I think it was Salman Rushdie who once said that “the most interesting parts of a language are the untranslatable ones.” Be that as it may, translators have to do their best to come closest to an author’s original intentions, knowing that it is an impossible and fruitless task to strive for 100% fidelity and accuracy, but creating a space for negotiation and understanding between cultures in the middle of the two languages, the source and the target.

Clara, I recall, asked me to describe what kind of a criminal operation a bukas-kotse gang was. Marta had a load of questions about juego de prenda, the tuta in “Marcos Hitler diktador tuta!”, and why I had chosen to call the ruling party under martial law the “PNR, or the Party of the Newly Risen”; I explained to her that the actual martial-law government party was called the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, or Movement for a New Society. I used PNR as something of a private joke, as the initials also stand for Philippine National Railways (a reference to how everything was railroaded under martial law) and for the Filipino phrase “puwede na rin,” or “it will do” (a reference to mediocrity). Jean-Pierre wondered about my use of “laundry on the clothesline” and if it had any cultural resonances; I told him that we Pinoys still hang our clothes out to dry, and that you can half-expect to find your favorite jeans and shirts gone from where you left them if you don’t watch out.

In other words—literally, I guess—translation involves much more than figuring out equivalents for individual words and phrases; the translator keeps looking for similar, familiar experiences in the target culture to convey a working sense of the author’s meaning.

In Jakarta, my group and I—with the Bali-based translator and art critic Arif Prasetyo facilitating—went over words and phrases that the Indonesians had flagged. Why did I use “cloud-curtained” to describe a rainy evening instead of just “rainy”? (Because it was the novel’s opening scene and I wanted a touch of the theatrical.) Why did I say “a million gas stoves roared to life”? (Because I wanted both the sound and the image of the gas fires coming awake, mirroring the headlights of motorists and even the flowers in the plane’s cargo hold.) When I wrote that the sudden downpour “blurred glasses and windows,” did I mean “eyeglasses”? (Yes, to set up a motif having to do with seeing and perception.) We had fun with the word duhat, which I’d kept in the Filipino original, not knowing its English equivalent; some Googling with images established that, in Bahasa, it was the local jamblang, also known as the duwet or the black plum (but if I’d used “black plum” in my novel, not a single Pinoy would have known what I meant).

Just as interestingly, my translators found a couple of mistakes in my novel, which I acknowledged with equal amounts of embarrassment and gratitude. One was a small typo, the other a major boo-boo: I’d said that the flight from Jeddah to Bangkok had “stretched the daylight with it,” but an alert member of the team who had actually been to Jeddah (I never had) noted that it worked the other way around, that one flew more quickly into the darkness. I promised to correct this in the next edition.

And so my adventure with the translators went, full of surprises and revelations. I learned much from listening to Kate Griffin talk about how, in the UK, interest in translation has been drummed up through popular word games, and how the BCLT (which is based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where I began Soledad’s Sister as a David TK Wong Fellow in 1999) combines teaching, research and expertise with an ambitious outreach program. Eric Abrahamsen, an American who has been based in Beijing for the past 12 years, spoke about how he helped form Paper Republic to band translators of Chinese together to professionalize their trade.

John McGlynn, an American translator who works with the Lontar Foundation which translates and publishes Indonesian writing into English, brought up the painfully obvious point: translators don’t get paid enough for their work. Ideally, he suggested, translators should get at least $20 (or, to us, P1,000) per page, given that the US State Department paid professional translators like him $30 per page for contracted work. In reality, however, Indonesian translators got a tiny fraction of that suggested amount. “Factor in the cost of printing and distribution, plus royalties for the author, and you really have very little left for the translator,” said John.

Indeed, translators around the world have a long way to go to attain the same respect and consideration given to the authors whom they lend their voices to, but like the writers themselves, they have no choice but to persevere, the unacceptable alternative being silence and ignorance.

Penman No. 49: To the Writer at 25 (Part 2)

John and ChristinePenman for Monday, June 3, 2013

TO CONTINUE from last week, here’s what I told my young audience at the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop (that’s them in the picture above, with panelists John Iremil Teodoro and Christine Godinez-Ortega in the foreground) at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology:

Writing in The Atlantic a few years ago, Max Fisher addressed the question of age and artistic productivity. “When in life are we most creative?” he asked. “Do we peak when we are young and energetic, or old and experienced?” Fisher brought up three answers, each with its own champion.

First, he suggested, “We peak young.” He quoted Kazuo Ishiguro—who incidentally is my exact age, born 1954—who said: “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them budding or promising, when in fact they’re peaking.” According to Ishiguro, he had been “haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.”

Second, “We peak in middle age.” Fisher cites a psychologist from UC-Davis who established that while “poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s… geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age…. Unlike poets, who peak early and fade quick, fiction writers tend to ripen and mature with age.”

Finally, says Fisher, “We peak old (sometimes).” Here he falls back on Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame, who points out that “Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.”

I myself suspect that, with enough research, we can come up with all kinds of numbers to support any one of these propositions. There will always be the prodigious Marlowes and Poes and Rizals and Plaths who will streak like a comet across the night sky in their 20s and 30s—and perhaps not incidentally die soon after. Some writers, even if they live long, will produce a burst of brilliant work in their early years, and then drop the pen, or be little heard from again.

Paz Marquez Benitez published the classic “Dead Stars” when she was 31, and Angela Manalang Gloria came out with her book of poems, which she would be known for, at 33—but they would forever be those 30-somethings and no older in our literary appreciation. Nick Joaquin published his first poem, “The Innocence of Solomon,” at 20, “May Day Eve” when he was 30, and “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino when he was 34, but The Woman with Two Navels wouldn’t come until he was 44, and of course he continued writing and publishing practically until his death at 86 in 2004. NVM Gonzalez was 26 when he published The Winds of April in 1941; he was 43 by the time he wrote “Bread of Salt” in 1958, and 46 when he published The Bamboo Dancers in 1960. And like Joaquin, Gonzalez demonstrated longevity, working well into his last years. Speaking of longevity and sustained production, we have Leo Deriada and Tony Enriquez, plugging away, I’m sure, at another prizewinning novel or story, as they’ve been doing all these decades.

We’ll see, however, that most of our best writers, especially those who lived past their 70s, produced their most memorable work between their 20s and 40s. Rarely have we found a Dostoyevsky, who published The Brothers Karamazov four months before he died at 59 (my present age). Jose Garcia Villa’s writing might as well have ended with the comma poems of Volume Two in 1949, although he lived for nearly half a century more. Franz Arcellana’s literary legacy really lies in Selected Stories, published in 1962 when he was 46; I know of no more stories that he wrote until his death 40 years later in 2002.

You can draw your own conclusions and prescriptions, but this is mine: write what you can when you can, the sooner the better. The best time to write that story or that poem in your head is today, not tomorrow, and never mind if it turns out to be bad, because that’s what tomorrow is for, for the insightful and merciless and inspired revision that separates the mediocre writer from the truly talented and committed.

Of course I should also say that to writers of my generation, with a slight difference: write what you can while you can, because tomorrow may not come around. Today we live in an intensely youth-oriented culture, and some days it may seem like only the young get all the attention—which they deserve—but we are not in competition with them. Rather we are competing with ourselves, with time itself, and with the ages.

Now, what would I do—or what would I advise a writer to do—if I were 25 today?

1. Focus on your first book. If you write only one book in your life, then this will be the most important thing you will leave behind, not counting your children—or maybe even counting them. Your first book will be even more important than an MFA or your MFA thesis, which, truth to tell, no one but your defense panel will read. Some students I know dithered for years in a vain attempt to perfect their MFA or PhD thesis projects. For me, much of that was wasted time. Do a thesis worthy of passing—and then spend time cleaning up the text and shaping it into a reader-worthy book, a book with your name on the spine. And of course there are good books and bad books, and some days you wish an awful author had desisted from publishing and spared a few trees. But you’ll have to take your chances and get that bad first book out of the way, or you’ll never get to your good second one.

2. Focus on your second book. Your first book will likely have expended everything you’d always wanted to say. So now, what? Once you’ve mined your own young and unavoidably angsty life for material, what’s left for you to write about? Why, the world of course, although that world may seem awfully small at 25, especially if you haven’t been looking too closely at anyone but yourself and your friends. The real challenge of writing for me isn’t writing about oneself—which is, admittedly, an inexhaustible subject, a continuing mystery—but about strangers, whom the writer then makes as familiar as oneself. That’s what the best writers have done—perform great acts of invention, of transport, of sheer imagination. You have to believe to believe that there is more than one book—indeed, more than one life to plumb—in you.

3. Attend a workshop or two, but learn to hunker down and to work on your own. Young writers today seem enamored of workshops, and that’s understandable to a point, as writing is among the loneliest of labors anyone can assume, and the young writer will need the affirmation and the comfort of the company that workshops provide. But workshops can’t be a crutch; life isn’t an eternal summer where you can keep tinkering with a draft in the hope that someone out there in some workshop will finally like it. Past your second or third workshop, keep the workshop in your head, and begin to write, in productive solitude, in the silent company of your presumptive fellows—Chekhov, Rilke, Salinger, Joaquin, Alfon, Gordimer, Lahiri, or whoever moves you to do as they did.

4. Stop arguing, and leave the polemics and the criticism to others. You don’t have time for that, and it can distract you from what you should be doing, which is writing more of your own work. While criticism can help clarify our own aims and means, these debates can sap too much of a writer’s psychic energy, energy one needs for his or her own poetry.

5. Lastly, listen to old fogeys like me, and listen closely—but make up your own minds, make your own mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make them, or you’ll never get anything right. Not everything you write will be a work of genius; indeed, much of it will very likely be immemorable. But if you endeavor to write well and to write enough, sooner or later, that masterpiece you might be remembered by will come. Desperate to earn a living from his writing, Chekhov wrote more than 200 stories in his lifetime; except for the most devoted fan, no more than a dozen of these stories will be familiar to us as classics. But he would not have come up with that glittering dozen if he hadn’t written 190 other less worthy pieces. So nothing is ever wasted in writing. Your misfires and your false starts are part of your investment in the enterprise of a lifetime.

Would Rizal be Rizal without the Noli and the Fili and Mi Ultimo Adios? Perhaps, but he would be a diminished Rizal, whose martyrdom would have lost much of its resonance. Will it be sacrilege to suggest that we admire Rizal less for his actions than for his writings? Were his writings not, in fact, largely his deeds? In any event, they are what live on—what he wrote at 25 and in the few years left to him after that.

As Hippocrates put it so well, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” often transposed into “Life is short, but art lives long.” May we all write something worthy of surviving us—the sooner the better.

Penman No. 48: To the Writer at 25 (Part 1)

INWWPenman for Monday, May 27, 2013

LAST WEEK, it was Iligan’s turn to host me, among other writers, for the 20th National Writers Workshop under the auspices of the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and I was honored to deliver the keynote, which I’m excerpting this week and next. Here’s what I said:

It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of friends and comrades in the profession, including many luminaries of our national literature who happen to be based in the Visayas and Mindanao. I’m especially glad to be addressing our young fellows, for whom I wrote this talk, for special reasons that will be shortly clear. In fact, I’ve decided to title this talk “To The Writer at 25,” aimed at writers of that age, give or take a couple of years.

Why 25? Let me cite a statistic that, depending on how you take it, could either be empowering or overpowering. It’s a figure that’s been there all along but which no one seems to have thought about too much, probably because no one really knew what to make of it or recognized its potential significance.

And here’s that fact: Jose Rizal finished writing Noli Me Tangere in December 1886 and published it by March 1887. At that point, he was still no more than 25 years old.

Rizal had less than ten years to live after that. But by the time he was executed by the Spaniards in 1896, he had written two novels and parts or fragments of five more, as well as dozens of important essays and poems.

Think of that for a minute—the Noli by age 25, the Fili by age 30, and a lifetime’s work by 35. If only for these, then—at least in my book—Jose Rizal does deserve to be a national hero, and not incidentally a National Artist.

Those of us who are now far north of 25 might recall what we were doing at that age. We may have been already writing by then—I know I was—but I doubt that we were laboring at or even thinking about a Noli, or even a novel, at that time.

At 25 I was married and a father, and I’d won a few literary prizes, certainly not enough to convince me or anyone else that I would go on to any kind of greatness, but enough to suggest to me that the rest of my life would be inscribed by literature, that I would do well to take it seriously, for better or for worse. I was out of school, and I had not even gone to my first writers’ workshop, but I knew, in my blood and bones, that I would go on to write more and more things, as inchoate as those things were to me then.

Indeed, for most of us not named “Jose Rizal,” 25 seems to be a good landing on the steps, a firm pre-departure point for a future in writing. Interestingly enough, in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published when he was 31, T. S. Eliot specified 25 as the age by which one should have made some crucial commitments—among them, an embrace of tradition or “the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year.”

It wasn’t even at 25 but a few months after turning 24 that Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his first novel titled Poor Folk, now nearly forgotten in the wake of his greater and more mature work but a critical and commercial success in its time. In fact, so intent was Dostoyevsky on pursuing a literary career that he published his second novel, The Double, a month after Poor Folk.

Edgar Allan Poe was even more precocious, publishing his first book of poetry at 18; he had three collections of poetry by his 22nd year, and turned to prose at 24, winning a prize for his story “MS. Found in a Bottle.”

Eighteen was also the age when Sylvia Plath published her first story in Seventeen magazine, in 1950; that year, she wrote in her journal: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”

I could go on and on, about this and that writer having written this and that work at this and that young age, but you catch my drift. While there may be no real prodigies in writing, there have been, on the other hand, many precocious people who began producing significant work around their 25th year.

I bring this up because, as I prepare to embrace seniorhood in a few months, I find myself often asking if I have written enough, if I were to keel over tomorrow. But enough for what? Perhaps the more accurate question would be, did I write enough of what I could, when I could? What does age have to do with output and insight?

This is what I’d like to talk about a bit this morning, this relationship between age and productivity in creative writing. I would have liked to say not only in creative writing but in the other arts as well, but this is where writing perhaps differs the most from music, painting, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out before, true prodigies don’t exist in literature, unlike in music or mathematics—no Mozarts who can write full symphonies or Ramanujams who can solve complex equations at a preciously tender age.

We don’t find full-blown adult novels written by eight-year-olds, which was Mozart’s age when he composed his Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major. Prodigies also abound in painting—The Huffington Post lists at least ten of them, one of whom, nine-year-old Kieron Williamson, recently sold 24 paintings worth almost $400,000 in one month and was reported to be preparing for a retrospective—yes, a retrospective.

Why don’t we have a Brothers Karamazov or even a Gone With the Wind written by a third-grader? The reason is obvious: writing involves more than vocabulary; it requires social experience, which can only come with growing up.

Even so, Rizal did an awful lot of growing up very quickly to be able to dish out the Noli and Fili by his 30th year.

It was in my 30th year, in 1984, that I came out with my first book, Oldtimer and Other Stories. Throughout the mid-to-late 1970s, my officemate and I, the late playwright Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., then both in our early 20s, had carried on a fierce but friendly competition in the arena of playwriting. I drew first blood, with a first-prize win over Boy’s second place in the 1976 CCP Playwriting Competition—our mutual teacher in playwriting, Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, came in third—but that was the first and last time I won over Boy, over many CCP and Palanca competitions that followed. As a result, I shifted from playwriting in Filipino to the short story in English, where I felt I was safe from Boy. But in the meanwhile, we made another friendly dare—to come out with our first books by our 30th year. As it happened, we both made it—barely: he published Bayanan-Bayanan at Iba Pang Mga Dula in 1982, after turning 30; I published Oldtimer in 1984, a month before turning 31.

I recall these things because I also recall the intense awareness of age and time that accompanied our writing then. We felt under the constant pressure of a deadline—and I don’t mean just the Palanca deadline, although that was mightily important to us then, at a time when there was very little publishing going on, and competitions were literally the only game in town. Ours, after all, was the generation of the First Quarter Storm, of a brave but bloody activism that saw many of its acolytes fall at the steps of the altar in their teens and early 20s. If there was anything important we wanted to do—like write a book, or get married, or father a child—we had to do it sooner than later, because life was very likely going to be short, if not nasty and brutish.

Of course we will never really know how long we will live or when we will die—that remains life’s greatest mystery, and it’s still with some astonishment that I realize I’ll be turning 60 in January—so we really can’t tell when our most productive years will be, or when we’ll write the piece that we will hope to be remembered by. (Conclusion next week.)

Penman No. 47: Another Summer in Silliman


Penman for Monday, May 20, 2013

LAST WEEK had me enacting another familiar ritual—sitting on the panel of the 52nd edition of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City. The oldest of all the country’s literary workshops, Silliman’s is also the longest at three weeks—a format it has retained for many decades now, certainly since I was a fellow myself in 1981. Three weeks of poetry, ocean, and boozing by starlight may be a young writer’s dream escapade, but old geezers like us panelists can’t take that much time off from the more mundane claims of life, so we sign up for no more than a week, and this year I took the middle week.

I shared the week’s paneling duties with a couple of old friends: the prizewinning short story writer and now Silliman workshop director Susan Lara and the Mindanao-based poet and retired rocker Ricky de Ungria, as well as the La Salle-based playwright and historian Vic Torres and a poet and car mechanic that the workshop flew in from Hong Kong, David McKirdy. (David’s “car mechanic” tag isn’t just being cute—that’s his real profession, and an enviable one it is, since he specializes in repairing vintage Rolls Royces, and flies around the world to revive Silver Shadows from the 1930s and such.)

Quite by chance, this panel acquired a trademark of sorts: David and I turned up in the panama hats we’d been accustomed to wearing, and Susan also sported a black hat, prompting Ricky and Vic to procure hats themselves, and soon the panel resembled a gathering of Mafiosi or mandarins.


On the other side of the table were this year’s fellows: Corina Marie B. Arenas, Nolin Adrian de Pedro, Patricia Mariya Shishikura, Brylle Bautista Tabora, and Lyde Gerard Villanueva for poetry; Tracey de la Cruz, Sophia Marie Lee, Rhea Politado, and Patricia Verzo for fiction; Jennifer de la Rosa Balboa, Ana Felisa Lorenzo, and Arnie Q. Mejia for creative nonfiction; and Mario Mendez for drama. In addition, two special fellows joined the workshop from Singapore: Christine Leow and Nurul Asyikin from Singapore Management University.

Every batch of fellows is arguably unique and different from its predecessors, but writers and workshops being what they are, the panelists will often find themselves dealing with the same old problems and challenges, albeit in new manifestations. Last week, in our sessions at the Rose Lamb Sobrepeña Writers Village in Camp Lookout in Valencia, we found an abundance of fresh writing talent, but also the need, as ever, to bring focus and refinement into the work of young wards.

I’ll spare you the usual writing lesson (don’t worry, you’ll get an earful in the weeks to come, as I have more workshops on the schedule), but this week I kept hearing myself muttering my mantras: (1) “Raise the stakes, and push the narrative!”; (2) “Why this day, and why this hour? Choose the best point of attack for your story!”; and (3) “Think cinematically! What’s in the frame? How far way are we from what we’re looking at?”

Thankfully it wasn’t all work, and there were timeouts aplenty from the daily dose of criticism that the fellows got.

A high point of the week was Wednesday spent at Antulang Beach Resort in Siaton, about an hour from downtown Dumaguete. Run by the very amiable and capable Anabelle Lee-Adriano and her husband Edu, Antulang alone is one great reason to fly in to Dumaguete and to spend a long week or weekend there. The 11-hectare, 48-room resort runs along a strip of white beach lapped by crystalline blue-green water, and while the resort itself stands high above the water, a path winds down to the beach, with the vertical distance providing some privacy for bathers and beachcombers. (For a glimpse of what we saw and experienced, check out Antulang’s website here:


When you get tired of the beach, Antulang offers an alternative that I daresay no other beach resort in the whole archipelago has: thousands of good books in its Edith L. Tiempo Reading Room, a cozy little corner devoted to Dumaguete’s literary mother. I was very pleased to sign two books of mine that were on the shelves, but even more fun was talking with Edu and Annabelle about books and movies we all remembered and liked—the novels and autobiographical works of Han Suyin (after whom the Adrianos’ daughter Suyen was named), and The Seventh Dawn starring Capucine and William Holden. Anyone who likes Han Suyin and Capucine is a friend of mine!

As a bonus, the Adrianos brought us to the nearby house of their friend Karl Aguila, one of the country’s brightest young talents in sculpture and design. There’s no better showcase of Karl’s work than the sandstone-colored house itself, perched on a promontory overlooking scenic Tambobo Bay. With Mt. Talinis on the opposite side, it was just the sort of place where fabulous novels might get located, if not written.


A candlelit poolside dinner was also tendered on the fellows’ and panelists’ behalf by Simon Stack and his wife Virginia (or “Tata”), with Simon’s gracious mom Joanna assisting them with the hosting. The Stacks have transplanted themselves from New York and the Bahamas to settle in Dumaguete, where Tata helps run a school for Koreans. Simon and Tata have become welcome and welcoming members of Dumaguete’s cultural community, and whether he’s playing the sitar, reciting Milton from memory, or rapping like a New York gangsta—which he did in the after-dinner reading—Simon shows how comfortable he feels in the bosom of that community.

Again I’d like to thank the workshop sponsors—the NCCA, the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center, the United Board of Christian Higher Education in Asia, the US Embassy, and, of course, Silliman University—for having me over and making these memorable encounters possible. Thanks, too, to workshop coordinator Ian Casocot for facilitating everything.

Next up in my datebook: the Iligan writers workshop, where I’ll be by the time you read this.


ON A side note, and just as I expected, my piece on fountain-pen repair a few weeks ago—as esoteric as it may have sounded to many—generated quite a number of responses and inquiries from readers, and fresh sign-ups at our fountain-pen club at I’m always pleasantly surprised by how many people out there remember writing with pens, and still enjoy doing so despite the general shift from letters to digits in our daily life.

I’m almost ashamed to report that despite my crazy summer schedule, I managed to squeeze in a week-long trip to the US in early May, ostensibly to pick my mother up in Virginia and to accompany her home, but also to make a quick two-day trip to the Midwest for the 2013 Chicago Pen Show, to gorge on an overdose of vintage Parkers, Sheaffers, Watermans, and nearly every other pen maker known to man. This is what the boy in me slaves away at all kinds of tedious jobs for: a day at the toy store, also known as pen heaven.

If you have any questions about your fountain pens—whether they’re heirlooms from your grandfather’s drawer or the pen you sign big contracts with—I’d be happy to try and answer them by email, time permitting. (To answer in advance a common question about value, I’d urge you to go online to, and do a search for your pen under the “Completed” listings. That will give you a fair idea of how much your pen is worth in today’s market—which, I should forewarn you, will often be much less than the sentimental value you or your family might attach to the object.)

And if you feel like disposing of that useless old pen that won’t write, let me be your trashcan.

Penman No. 33: At the Literary Table


Penman for Monday, February 11, 2013

I’M HERE in Dumaguete City for Taboan, otherwise known as the Fifth Philippine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of writers from all over the archipelago, and even a few parts beyond. Dumaguete, of course, is inextricably linked with Philippine literary history as the home of the first and longest-running writers’ workshop in the country—the Silliman Writers Workshop, based in Silliman University—which explains its proud and rightful claim to be the “City of Literature.”

Scores of the country’s finest writers, especially in English, have passed through Silliman’s portals (in Silliman’s case, these are real portals, as iconic and as symbolic as the Oblation is to the University of the Philippines), thanks largely to Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, who started the workshop in 1962 after their return from the United States. I myself might not have thought of going back to school after having dropped out for ten years and of taking up fiction seriously after laboring as a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Silliman workshop, which I attended in 1981.

So holding Taboan in Dumaguete was in many ways a logical homecoming, and the fact that festival director Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega (who now teaches at MSU-Iligan) is a Silliman alumna helped things along immensely. The university administration and the city government were very supportive, and the festival began on an appropriately celebratory note with a parade around the city on Thursday morning, led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

But it was the keynote address delivered shortly after by the Cebuano scholar and writer Dr. Resil Mojares that best reminded me why it’s important for Filipino writers and academics to go out of Manila and listen to what the rest of the nation has to say if writers are to help in achieving that sense of nationhood that’s eluded us for ages. Resil—whose level-headed scholarship and clarity of thought I’ve always admired—spoke on “The Visayas in the National Imagination” (there was some confusion about the topic, but in the end it didn’t matter).

He spoke of how complicated the writer-nation relationship can be: “A writer’s relationship to his or her country cannot be one of blind faith or easy self-love. I think there is much in what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says about his relationship to his native Peru that we can recognize as our own. ‘For me,’ Llosa says, ‘Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh, and full of the violence of passion… [a relationship] more adulterous than conjugal… full of suspicion, passion, and rages.’ Yet, for all these, Llosa confesses to a ‘profound solidarity’ with the country. He says: ‘Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet Cesar Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.”

That relationship can get even more difficult when the writer feels like a stranger or second-class citizen in his or her own country, as a writer working outside the national center might be made to feel. This dichotomy between the “national” and “local” (or “regional”) writer has been a longstanding point of concern and conflict in Philippine literature for which there have been no easy answers. Dr. Mojares couldn’t have illustrated the problem more clearly than in this excerpt from his keynote:

“Perhaps we have to bow to the historical fact that it is where power is accumulated and concentrated that the ‘nation’ is most effectively imagined. It is where the ‘local’ ascends to the level of ‘national.’

“The literary situation today is that writers and works have to be recognized in Manila for them to acquire the status of ‘national.’ The center exercises the power to canonize and consecrate. A Cebuano writer who publishes in a ‘vernacular’ magazine with a circulation of 30,000 is merely a ‘local’ writer, while one who publishes a book of English poetry in Manila with a print run of 750 copies is ‘national.’ So effective is Manila’s consecrating power that a writer may start out in Dumaguete or Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive.’ Dumaguete may be the ‘city of literature’ but it is not its capital.

“Some years ago, the poet-and-critic Virgilio (Rio) Almario asked me—with a hint of mischief and challenge—‘Where’s the new Cebuano poetry?’ I did not have a ready answer but assured him that there was a great deal of fresh, exciting work being done by young Cebuano poets. But Rio’s question did tell me that much of today’s Cebuano-language poetry—that circulates in manuscripts, poetry readings, small local publications, and Internet blogs—remains largely invisible outside of Cebu and Cebuanos, and that we (Cebuanos) have been remiss in defining and projecting to a wider audience what in this poetry is distinct, different, and deserving of ‘national’ attention. Yet, the encounter with Rio did remind me that indeed one has to be consecrated by readers and critics like Rio for one to acquire the status of ‘national.’ I say this without malice. Rio is a friend. But such is the politics of recognition.”

The discussion got even more lively in the plenary session following Resil’s talk, which was devoted to the topic of “Your Place at the Writers’ Table,” around the idea that while a national literature should ideally be inclusive, many writers still felt left out—not just because of the cultural and political distance between the center and the margins, but also because of the generational divide, and perhaps even of sheer snobbery on the part of “established” writers unwilling to yield ground to younger, fresher talent.

I’d meant to keep quiet and let others do the talking, but was prodded for my opinion on this “insider/outsider” argument, which I understand had been a hot topic online. Not being on Facebook, I caught on to it late, and composed a response that I circulated privately, from which I’ll quote:

Small as it is, Philippine literary society is indeed ruled in a way by cliques, barkadas, orthodoxies, and prescriptions. In some cases, these institutions and conventions may have made it difficult for new, alternative, and dissident voices to emerge and be heard.

I myself will indefensibly admit to being part of this ruling elite—I suppose by default, being the director of an institute of creative writing, a professor of literature, and a member of an NCCA committee that gives out grants. I’ve done well by the system (Silliman workshop, CW degree and MFA, Palancas, etc.) and the system, I think, has also done well by me.

But all this doesn’t mean that my mind is closed to new ideas or that I will shoot them down when I get the chance. Within the system, I have voted and even argued for writers and kinds of writing I personally don’t prefer, because I remain aware of what’s at stake, which is much larger than what I like. I have voted down my friends, denied them grants, and brought in people left out in the usual pollings , again because—as an old-time, squishy, hand-wringing liberal—I believe in fair play, imperfect as any cultural or political regime will always be.

By and large, the system works, if getting ahead the usual way is all you want: join a workshop, write like your mentors, win a few prizes, publish a book or two. But I keep reminding my students that this isn’t the only way to writing fulfillment and happiness, and that they’re free to choose other paths and listen to other gurus—but also, and again, that the alternatives won’t be easy. We all make our own choices—but we should do so with full self-awareness, mindful of the costs and benefits to ourselves and to society.

How important is writing to you? Whom or what do you write for? What do you expect to get out of writing? How do you want to be seen or remembered by others through your writing? I’ve answered all these questions for myself—the bottom line is that writing is my livelihood and profession; I’m less a romantic than a realist—but I can’t hazard an answer for others. As a member of the barkada, the best I can do is to enlarge the table and to bring others to it—if they even want to be there, in the first place; if they don’t, well, perhaps they shouldn’t mind too much if we dine in peace and enjoy each other’s company—and maybe even manage to write a good book or two on the side.