Penman No. 277: The Wealth Within Us (1)

35092804316_00f878c388_k

Penman for Monday, November 13, 2017

 

THIS ASEAN week and next, I’m sharing excerpts from a short paper I presented at a conference on ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order that took place last November 8 at the Shangri-La Makati, under the auspices of the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Asia Society. Ours was a panel on ASEAN cultural cooperation, and I spoke as a writer and academic engaged in regional networking.

As a creative writer and professor of literature, I’ve had many opportunities over these past 25 years to meet and mingle with my Southeast Asian counterparts in various conferences.

Until recently, there weren’t too many of these regional networks for writers and artists to get together, but today, some formal networks are in place. In my field, for example, the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators or APWT—which held its tenth annual conference just two weeks ago in Bali—has been very active in making connections between writers, translators, teachers, scholars, and publishers around the region. APWT goes well beyond Southeast Asia to include China, Japan, Korea, India, and even the United States and the UK, and very recently its major sponsor has been Australia, which is seeking to expand its Asian footprint.

I’m sure that similar associations exist in the other arts—in theater, music, and dance, for example. But let me use these writers’ gatherings as an illustration of the challenges and opportunities we Filipinos face on the cultural front.

Cultural cooperation presumes an awareness of each other’s culture. The problem is, there’s very little of that kind of connection, people to people, around the region, or at least between us and the rest of the region. Chalk it down to the fact that we have been separated from the rest of Southeast Asia by geography, by history, by language, and by religion. Scholars, writers, and artists—and let’s add OFWs—should of course have a deeper understanding of regional cultures, but that’s their job.

And even so, at nearly every regional conference I’ve attended, I’m acutely reminded of how out of the loop we Pinoys are—out of the Sinic loop up north, out of the Indic loop out west, out of the Malay loop down south, and out of the Commonwealth loop to which many of those countries belong. Having cast our lot with America and English, we find little in common with most everybody else, beyond the color of our skin and our shared legacy of colonialism.

Ironically, cultural commonalities and exchanges of a kind do happen around the region, and even around Asia—largely as a result of globalization, the Internet, satellite TV, and their impact on youth and pop culture. Witness the spread of K-Pop, anime, rap, telenovelas, and anything from Hollywood, especially the Marvel and DC universe.

But while these influences have arguably injected new vitality into traditional cultures and media, they have also, to a significant extent, contributed to the homogenization of those cultures, and to the forgetting or even obliteration of traditional knowledge, leaving our youth in a cultural limbo, divorced and alienated from the common experience of their own people.

Consider this: young urban Filipinos don’t consider agriculture as a career option, don’t like to eat fish unless it’s imported salmon, have no idea where or what Quiapo is, see Mindanao as another country, and know more about Japanese manga and Star Wars than they do about our heroes. Their world-view is shaped by Facebook and Netflix and spread by Twitter and Instagram, and not by direct immersion in their societies, much less by the societies around them. Indeed the fashionable thing today is to propose that the very idea of “nation” is a thing of the past, even as the rabidly resurgent nationalisms of some of our neighbors reveal that to be a precarious fantasy.

Clearly this indicates a failure of education, but as we all know, subjects related to culture and history have increasingly been relegated to the back rows of our curricular priorities in favor of science, technology, and mathematics. As a graduate myself of the Philippine Science High School and an abortive engineer and economist, I have no quarrel with pushing those competencies in the name of competitiveness and national development.

But there are also powerful arguments to be made for supporting cultural programs and endeavors instead of diminishing them. I will focus on two: what I will call the moral argument, and the economic argument.

The moral argument is that culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Cultural cooperation begins at home, first of all with an awareness of what culture is and how it can not only explain but enhance human life.

Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

Politics and economics may dominate the news and people’s consciousness, but many of our problems are cultural in nature—indeed, our politics and economics are significantly shaped by culture, from the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the conflict in Marawi.

The problem is that we often see culture as little more than entertainment, a musical interlude between presumably more important matters. Even overseas, Filipinos think of culture as the obligatory pancit and tinikling on June 12—not the underlying reason why there are hundreds of Filipino organizations in Southern California alone but few major statewide Fil-Am political leaders. (More next week)

 

Penman No. 231: A Sortie to Siem Reap

IMG_0296.jpg

Penman for Monday, December 26, 2016

 

HAVING MADE a pact to see as much of the world together for as long as our knees could carry us, Beng and I headed out to Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia just before Christmas. It was another booking we’d typically made months in advance (we’d booked our November trip to Guangzhou in February) to avail ourselves of budget fares, and a four-day sortie in mid-December sounded just about right, taking the weather and the crowds (or the lack of them) into account. A few years ago, we’d taken separate December trips to Beijing and Shanghai and had shivered in the snow, but were rewarded with spectacularly desolate views of and from the Great Wall.

At an age when people start talking about bucket lists, we just had to see Angkor Wat and its outlying complex of temples, but as it turned out, Siem Reap was much more than just a location or a jump-off point for Angkor Wat. It had ample charms of its own, and while it would be criminal to go there without visiting the temples, it offered much room for more solitary pursuits. We were there for four full days, spending two days on the road and two just lazing around about town, and it felt just right at our seniors’ pace.

IMG_0094.JPG

It takes just under three hours to fly to Siem Reap from Manila; our flight landed close to 10 pm, and we were met by a tuktuk sent by our boutique hotel as a free service, a welcome touch. There’s a long row of big hotels along the national highway but we chose a small one closer to the center of town, about a 20-minute ride away. I exchanged a couple of hundred dollars at the airport, but it turned out to be almost totally unnecessary—in Siem Reap, the US dollar is king, with dollar prices posted or quoted on everything from SIM cards and T-shirts to mango shakes and massages. (Do bring lots of small bills—I’ve never seen so many 2-dollar bills moving around, not even in the US, although curiously signs say that Cambodian banks won’t accept them.) Speaking of SIM cards, a $5 Cellcard SIM gets you 1.5 gigs of data, good for one week.

Aside from dollar bills, the other constant in Siem Reap is the tuktuk, larger and more spacious than its Thai counterpart, with two facing seats in the back and the motorcycle all by itself out front. Ours was driven by an unfailingly pleasant and efficient fellow called Thou (whose name kept me looking for a loaf of bread and a jug of wine); the only drawback to this design is that the driver sits too far ahead of you for any conversation beyond the yelled “Stop!” at points of interest, so I sadly never got to really chat with Thou, even if his English was surprisingly good.

Indeed I was frankly astonished by the facility with which nearly every Cambodian I met—whether driver, waitress, masseuse, or vendor—spoke English. Of course Siem Reap is the country’s tourist capital, and English is now taught in Cambodian schools, but we didn’t see that kind of proficiency in Thailand or Vietnam. Quaint vestiges of French remain—a police outpost still called itself a “gendarmery” (with a Y). I remember last using my pidgin French some years ago with an old silk seller in Hanoi who didn’t speak English, but I never had that problem in Siem Reap. Our foot-massage suki said that she had learned English just by listening to her guests, while our guide at the war museum said that he had been taught the language by an NGO.

IMG_0295.JPG

IMG_0110.JPG

IMG_0340.JPG

As you can guess, foot massages (widely available for $5 each) were on our daily schedule, mandatory especially after the 10K treks you’ll be making, but Siem Reap is silk-scarf, cotton-shirt, and silver-bangle heaven as well for the casual shopper. Great food—with dishes familiar to the Pinoy palate—can be found all over, and you can easily enjoy a meal for two, including drinks, for $10. Wherever we were, even in the humblest market stall (our kind of fine dining), the rice was consistently good, neither stony nor mushy but with that bounce to the bite that we Visayans call makid-ol. You could even have your massage or your meal with a free daily ladyboys show. If you abhor cheap stuff (I can’t say we do) and want the very best items at corresponding prices, the Artisans Angkor workshop and showroom is in a class all by itself; mid-range, there’s the “Made in Cambodia” market, which also features a free show of traditional Cambodian dance in the early evening.

IMG_0391.JPG

IMG_0402.JPG

Any list of Siem Reap’s attractions will begin with the 12th-century Angkor Wat, and if I don’t say much about it here it’s only because you truly have to be there to appreciate its majesty, along with the smaller but no less wondrous Bayon and Ta Phrom temples. This complex is but a 30-minute drive away from downtown, but what a difference a half-hour makes—seemingly into the jungle, but actually into the heart of civilization itself.

img_0231

img_0246

We had been warned by the guidebooks about the insufferable heat in Siem Reap, especially on the temple tours, but it was cloudy and drizzly—even cool and nippy—for most of the time we were there. Riding our tuktuk around the countryside was thoroughly instructive. Depending on your perspective, it was either reassuring or disconcerting to see so many orphanages and pharmacies along the road. Cambodian People’s Party signs were ubiquitous as well, and a visit to the War Museum proved indispensable in contextualizing the easy comforts of today’s Cambodia.

img_0320

Our museum guide Prem was born in nearby Battambang, close to the Thai border, and remembered witnessing battles with the Khmer Rouge as a boy; his parents survived the genocide by feeding on insects. (Angkor Wat is replete with reliefs of battle scenes, a reminder of how often and how strangely beauty and gore come together.) Democracy, Prem said, was a work in progress in his country, and I could only agree and advert to our own situation, although the horrors of the Pol Pot period—with 3 million, half the Cambodian population, killed in just four years—made us, with our mere thousands of largely faceless losses over a few months, appear absurdly civilized by comparison.

We motored to the edge of Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and another major tourist attraction—but decided against taking the $20, two-hour cruise, having read on half a dozen websites about how commercialized the package had become. I’m sure we would have enjoyed it anyway, as writers and artists should find something noteworthy in the most trodden of paths, but it felt enough to contemplate the vastness of the lake from where we stood onshore. A pretty sight on the way to the lake was the carpet of flowering lotuses being farmed by the villagers.

img_0192

Just like its pinkish earth, which it seems any seed you throw into will explode in greenery, Siem Reap is a testament to the insistence of life itself, to the indomitability of the human spirit against all manner of despotism and despair. We flew home much refreshed, from our brows to our toes.

img_0291

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: http://conference.up.edu.ph/shakespeareinasia2013/.”

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.”