Penman No. 334: A Literary Yearender



Penman for Monday, December 31, 2018


TWO BIG events rounded out the literary year for me, both of them related in some way to the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), which not incidentally marked the 40th anniversary of its founding earlier this month.

The first was Writers Night last November 23, effectively an annual reunion and pre-Christmas party of the Filipino literary community. But more than a social bash, Writers Night also marks two important points on the literary calendar: the announcement of the winner of the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award (given in alternating years to books in Filipino and English) and the launch of the latest issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature.

Now on its 18thyear, the MGBFBA’s awarding is highly anticipated, not just because of the P50,000 cash prize but also because, miraculously, the UPICW has done a pretty good job of keeping the winner’s name secret until the proverbial opening of the envelope itself. This year’s winner was Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa, published by Adarna Books, which went on to win a National Book Award the very next day.

Rappler’s Margie de Leon describes the work thus: “The first few pages alone of komikera Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa will take your breath away. Depicting local mythology’s creation of the universe, each page is a luscious spread of lively lines and bold colors….The next chapters are a narrative feat, interspersing short stories between pairs of Filipinos and the geological birth of the nation. The tangled tales between each pair of characters serve to personify the actual physical shifts that occurred in our geography millennia ago.”

The second highlight of Writers Night was the launch of the Likhaan Journal, and this year being a milestone, we launched not one but two issues—the regular journal containing 20 of the year’s best and previously unpublished works in Filipino and English, and a similar collection, edited by me, which we called 40@40, featuring new works by our top writers in Filipino and English—the difference being that the 40@40 writers all had some connection to the UPICW as former fellows, panelists, or members of the board.

As I noted in my introduction to the volume, when the UP Creative Writing Center was set up in December 1978, the country was firmly in the grip of martial law, which had been declared in 1972 and six years later had settled into a certain stability, or at least the appearance thereof, buttressed by new governmental institutions such as the Batasang Pambansa, the Ministry of Human Settlements, the Ministry of Public Information, and the National Media Production Center.

Martial law—particularly martial law of “the smiling kind” that the Palace liked to tout—had to create its own fictions, chiefly that Filipinos were free to express themselves and that Philippine culture and literature could find no better sponsor than the present regime, which had after all established the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. The establishment of the UPCWC—which became the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) in 2002—may have been part of that liberal façade, the notion that all was well in the New Society. It began as a small office where university-based writers and their friends converged for spirited chats over smuggled beer and gin (itself an act of subversion, as the university banned such libations), with no defined function graver than running the annual Writers Workshop and the occasional lecture or forum.

But over the years, and especially over the decades after the overthrow of the dictatorship at EDSA, the UPICW has grown into a truly writer- and university-driven institution, overseeing mid-career and novice writers workshops as well as seminars for teachers and translators, running an online portal to Philippine literature at, conducting outreach programs, representing Philippine writing overseas, and encouraging writing in other Philippine languages beyond Filipino and English.

Even within UP, not too many Filipinos seem to appreciate the fact that the UPICW is a trailblazer and a leader in the region, indeed in all of Asia, in terms of what it does.

This proved true again in 2018’s last big literary event, the annual gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators held December 5-7 at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia. A contingent of seven Filipinos, most of them affiliated with the UPICW, represented the Philippines—possibly the largest national contingent aside from the Australians themselves.


APWT is the region’s largest and most active literary network, and we hosted its annual conference in 2015. I sit on its advisory board, and I was accompanied in Australia by UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, writers Vlad Gonzales, Luna Sicat Cleto, Marby Villaceran, and Deedle Tomlinson, and my wife Beng. We held a very well attended panel discussion on Philippine literature, which remains a mystery to many of our neighbors who belong to the Commonwealth loop. APWT will move to Macau in 2019, and we expect an even stronger Philippine presence there.


Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under


Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017



WE HAD some very distinguished visitors over at UP from James Cook University in Australia last week, and while most of them came from the sciences, I was happy to join the team that greeted and met with them, led by our very capable Vice President for Academic Affairs, the sociologist Cynch Bautista. These growing partnerships are part of UP’s continuing effort to assume a more international outlook—to imbibe the best of what leading universities around the world have to offer while projecting and sharing our strongest academic and intellectual resources as well.

While most of our international academic exchanges have traditionally been conducted with universities in the West, especially the United States, we have increasingly and consciously broadened our reach to embrace more universities within the region—Taiwan has been a very active partner of late—and Australia should be a logical focus for more of these exchanges.

I myself have had the pleasure of visiting Australia several times—as a visiting writer with the Australia Defence Forces Academy in Canberra, as a guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival, and as a speaker at literary conferences in Perth and Melbourne. What has always impressed me about Australia is not only the sheer vastness of the land, but also the openness and friendliness of the people I’ve met there, and their refreshing informality.

Though not that old—it was established in 1970—JCU has risen quickly to become one of the world’s top universities focused on the tropics, with cutting-edge research in such diverse but important areas as rainforest monitoring, natural disasters, reef management, and vaccine development. Aside from campuses in Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, it also has a campus in Singapore offering courses in business, education, and health sciences.

Our leading UP scientists and administrators had much to share with their JCU counterparts, with UP Los Baños touting its research in nanobiotechnology and biofuels, UP Manila studying ways of dealing with dengue and hookworm, and the Marine Science Institute promoting conservation of genetic diversity and fishery sustainability.

But aside from these concerns, what I personally found fascinating was a discovery I made while looking up the background of our historical relations with Australia. On (a treasure trove of academic papers), I ran into an essay written by the noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto and published in 1993 by—coincidence?—James Cook University. The essay covers Philippine-Australian interactions in the late 1800s, and makes an early point about Australia being the second largest market for Philippine coffee and the largest one for sugar in the mid-19th century.

But the essay goes far beyond economic statistics to relate the remarkable stories of two Australians in the Philippines and one Filipino immigrant in Australia. It wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to bring up at our meeting, so I kept my amusement to myself over what Dr. Ileto found:

“The first Australian revealed to us by the Spanish records was an illegal entrant—a nameless and unwelcome woman…. This Sydney woman, [the British consul] pointed out, was definitely not the sort of person the governor-general would allow to stay. And true enough, the latter decreed that she was to be transported without any more delay to Sydney … ‘without permission ever to return to these islands.’

You can guess what this plucky if unlucky lady’s profession was. She would be followed in the annals by one Charles Wilridge Robinson, who first appears in 1880 and “for nearly every year” for at least 17 years “was brought to court for some offence or other,” typically involving a heightened state of intoxication and acts “of a piratical nature,” including “borrowing” a boat for six weeks and sailing down to Palawan.

But my interest peaked and my heart swelled when I came to Ileto’s account of a Filipino who became a successful businessman in Queensland and also a revolutionary patriot. Heriberto Zarcal was a jeweler in Santa Cruz, Manila who moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (facing Papua New Guinea) in May 1892, and soon offered his services as a “Lapidary and Optician, Goldsmith, Watchmaker, and Pearl Cleaner.” Filipino sailors—then known worldwide as “Manilamen”—had become pearl divers in the area since the 1870s. Zarcal grew rich, “mentioned as one of only five men on the Island licensed to deal in pearls… [who] had just acquired his own fleet of pearling vessels.” So successful was he that a European competitor complained by asking “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?”


What was unique about Zarcal was how—even as he had assumed British citizenship to be able to run a business—he flaunted his sympathies for the revolutionists back home, to the point of displaying a big sign saying “NOLI ME TANGERE” on top of his establishment. I’ll let Rey Ileto tell rest of the story in his own words:

“Zarcal, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, must have been among the many expatriate nationalists who consulted with Aguinaldo. An issue of the Hong Kong journal Overland China Mail which appeared in late March 1898 reported that Zarcal had commissioned the construction of three pearling schooners and named them the Aguinaldo, the Llanera, and the Natividad—in honour of three Filipino generals who had won victories against Spanish forces.” (He would give his other boats names like Sikatuna, Magdalo, Kalayaan, Justicia, and so on.)

“After 1905 Zarcal maintained only a handful of boats for pearling. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on his Thursday Island business as pearl-buyer and jeweller, augmenting his local stock of pearls with purchases from Port Darwin and the Dutch East Indies. Characteristically, perhaps, the final episode in his life was an extended journey to Europe begun in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Zarcal are said to have paid homage to their monarch, the Queen of England, presenting her with a huge pearl. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the Great War, the Zarcals waited it out in Europe, finally renting a flat in Paris in early 1916. There, on 9 February 1917, Zarcal succumbed to a stomach ulcer. At his deathbed were his wife Esther and ‘an old friend from Thursday Island,’ the Rev. Father Ferdinand Hartzer.”

So ends this amazing story, a gift from Down Under which I would never have heard of if I hadn’t been told that we were going to play host to some colleagues from James Cook University—which, to complete the circle, now runs a school on Thursday Island.

Penman No. 159: Border Insecurity

Penman for Monday, July 27, 2015

I’M NOT as big a TV fan as I used to be—I haven’t seen a single episode of Game of Thrones—but I can’t get enough of certain types of reality shows. I’ve been strangely attracted to Project Runway, and despite being a culinary philistine who hates cheese, I’m a sucker for food shows. I don’t care much for Survivor-type formats, believing that living in Manila beats sharing an island with snakes and monkeys anytime. I reserve my highest praise and deepest fascination for junk-o-ramas like American Pickers and Pawn Stars, being the kind of ukay-ukay addict who flew to Barcelona not for Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia but for the Encants flea market.

But there’s another kind of show I’m fixated on, in the same odd way that I hate even the prospect of surgery—I shrink like a schoolboy at the sight of a needle—but can be engrossed by medical documentaries, where other people get cut up. It’s the airport immigration and customs show, like Border Security Australia and Border Security Canada, where incoming passengers go through a gauntlet of questions and searches meant to find out if they’re drug dealers or food smugglers or people pretending to be tourists but are either (a) jobseekers; (b) international terrorists; or (c) fugitives from justice in disguise.

I cringe whenever a passenger—usually an Asian, sometimes a Pinoy—is loudly asked a dozen times, in clear, slow English, “Are you carrying any food?” The passenger looks stricken and bewildered, but ultimately decides to feign ignorance and/or linguistic incompetence and shakes his or her head, immediately upon which the customs officer opens the passenger’s bags to reveal enough meats, cooked dishes, condiments, and desserts for a wedding feast. The officer points to the customs form in which the passenger has boldly checked “No,” which occasions even more vigorous head-shaking, or the groan of discovery, or the wheezy laughter of surrender. The culprit is then fined, or given a stern warning, and the illegal edibles are confiscated, presumably for incineration (in this country, I think we know where they’ll end up—it’s a bigger crime to waste good food!).

As a frequent traveler myself to places out West, I shouldn’t rejoice at these embarrassing encounters between cat and mouse, but I’d have to shamefully admit that I do, which is why I keep watching these shows, for more of the same thing. I suppose it’s what the Germans call schadenfreude—the strange but delectable pleasure we get from the misfortunes of others, if only because it happens to them and not to us. Or at least that’s what we’d like to think.

I remember how, just a couple of years ago and after having made dozens of trips across the Pacific and gone through countless immigration lines, I foolishly “forgot” that I’d bought a few packets of chicharon—the deadlier bituka version, mind you, not the more innocent-looking rinds—at a planeside shop in NAIA, thinking that I would munch on them on the flight to San Francisco in the long stretch between meals. I must’ve fallen asleep instead, because they were still in my carry-on bag when Beng and I arrived in SFO, and had the misfortune of being singled out for random inspection (I think they read the vibes I must have subliminally emanated: “This guy is carrying chicharon. Arrest him.”) I speeded through the immigration process like the veteran I’d thought I was, chatting up the border agent in my best Midwestern-accented English, only to find myself in a special customs queue for secondary inspection. OK, I thought with a minor shrug of annoyance, no problem, let’s get this over and done with, shall we?

The immigration gods didn’t desert me completely, however, assigning me to a customs agent who was obviously Fil-Am, and who just as obviously knew how to deal with sneaky kababayans like me. “Magandang umaga po,” she said sweetly in Filipino as she took hold of my bag. “May pagkain po ba kayong dala ngayon—bagoong, chicharon, mangga?” I was all set to harrumph and put on my foulest professorial airs when I suddenly remembered—at her mention of the usual suspects—the packets of chicharon that I’d stuffed into the side pocket of my bag.

For a millisecond I toyed with gambling on her missing them—the chicharon bulaklak seemed even more delicious, being forbidden, and now I was never going to get a taste of it—but decided to come clean. Decades earlier (you see how these things have histories), an immigration beagle had sniffed out a stash of dubious comestibles in Beng’s luggage, meant for lonesome me in Milwaukee; now I was sure that they had 21st-century detectors and X-ray profiles of bagoong, chicharon, etc. in some secret room behind a nearby wall.

Ay, may chicharon bulaklak pala ako!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands up. “I meant to eat it on the plane, but forgot,” I added, grinning sheepishly. The agent reached in, felt for, and fished out the offending packets, and tossed them into a trash bin that seemed about to overflow with other people’s confiscated contraband. “I’m glad you told me, sir,” the Fil-Am agent said, with the barest hint of regret. “I would have fined you $300 if you didn’t!” I shuddered at the thought of having to fork over $300—the price of a fancy fountain pen—for three packets of pork innards that I didn’t even get a bite of. There, I thought, but for the grace of a kind Pinay go I.

So whenever I watch those poor, guilty souls trudging toward the immigration and customs agents on the TV shows, I silently scream at them, “Confess! Reveal the sausages and the century eggs! Resistance is futile!” Of course they never do, and I feel rewarded with my minute of smug satisfaction at having narrowly escaped the clutches of Western justice. (And it’s just them, right? Nobody but nobody ever asks incoming Americans, Canadians, or Australians, “Excuse me, sir, but do you have hotdogs, burgers, or French fries in your luggage?” Perhaps our immigration people should be better trained.)

SPEAKING OF overseas Pinoys, a fraternity brother in Toronto, Fred Postrado, emailed me to ask for some help in reaching out to his batchmates from the Manila High School Class of 1973, which is planning to hold a reunion during the last week of February 2016. Those interested may contact organizers Zen Alcantara Cabaluna at 0908-8849190 and, Mario Bulatao at 0917-5215739 and or Virgie Nudalo Calimag at 0932-8615484 and

Penman No. 23: Some Enchanted Melbourne


Penman for Monday, Dec. 3, 2012

PENMAN READERS have been getting earfuls from me about writing and literature these past few weeks, so I’m going to hold off for another week or so about what we discussed at the recent Bedell Nonfictionow conference in Melbourne, Australia, and instead talk about Melbourne itself—a place I fell in love with on my last couple of days there, for reasons you’ll find below.

Except for a brief stopover once on my way home from Sydney, I’d never been to Melbourne, and I was both honored and excited to have been invited to come over for the conference, which was being hosted by RMIT University, right in the heart of the city. I was billeted at the Rydges Hotel, a few blocks away from RMIT, and the location proved to be a godsend, as everything I needed and wanted to see seemed to lie within a half-hour’s walk from the hotel.

I had a choice of airlines to take from Manila to Melbourne, but only Philippine Airlines had a straight, overnight flight that was also ideal for busy people—I left Manila at 8:40 pm and flew into Melbourne (which is three hours ahead) shortly past 7 am, less than eight hours total, with the whole new day ahead. (And let me note my satisfaction with PAL’s new Boeing 777-300 planes, which give you a lot of legroom even in economy, and offer individual entertainment screens.)

A cab ride from the Tullamarine airport to the city center took some 25 minutes and cost AUD$55 (right now, the Australian dollar, which used to trade below the US dollar, is stronger than its American counterpart). Tipping isn’t required or expected in Australia—where good minimum wage legislation has made sure that workers don’t depend on gratuities for their basic income—but anyway I handed back my $4-plus in change to my Indian-Australian cab driver, who must’ve been happy he’d picked up a Filipino. (“I knew a girl from the Philippines once,” he told me, pronouncing “Philippines” with a long I, “and she called me Pogi.” He also introduced me to the “hook turn”—an unusual and apparently uniquely Melburnian traffic practice that involves driving up to the middle of the road if you’re about to make a right turn and just hanging there until you get the green light.)

I’d arrived too early for my hotel room to be ready, so I left my suitcase with the desk and promptly began exploring my environs—initiating, in the process, the Melbourne leg of my daily one-hour constitutional. (Since I depend on GPS and an Internet connection—using a free Nike app for the iPhone—to track my walks and count my calories, I had to go on data roaming, which reminds me to share this tip with my fellow footloose Filipinos: try Globe’s Bridge Data Unlimited or BDU program, which gives you what its title says for a flat fee of $40 for five days or $27 for three days, all around the region, including Hong Kong and Australia. It saves you from having to look for the nearest Starbucks for the free wi-fi, and from paying exorbitant wi-fi rates at hotels. Look it up on the Globe website or dial *143#.)

As it turned out, the very street next to the hotel was Bourke Street, one of Melbourne’s main shopping arteries. I had no intention of spending a single dollar on frivolous goods even before I’d uttered a word at the conference to earn my keep—but three hours to kill on Shopping Boulevard proved to be a prescription for disaster, and I happily walked out of the David Jones store with a new raffia plantation hat, for the price I would’ve paid for a new Parker Duofold. There, I told myself, goes the Penfolds shiraz I’d been planning to splurge on; it was going to be the cheap, old Hardys or tap water from this day forward. But instead of wallowing in buyer’s remorse, I took finding that souvenir within my first hour in the city as sheer serendipity. While summer in Australia was still a few days down the road, nothing seemed more perfect for me in Melbourne than that straw hat, putting me in a good mood for the rest of my stay and keeping my balding head warm through the chilly evenings.


Founded in 1887, RMIT University (the old Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) is one of the world’s top 100 universities, with strengths in engineering and communications. It occupies a sprawling campus in Melbourne’s city center, in buildings that range from Victorian yellowstone to quirky postmodern. And that, I would come to realize, pretty much described Melbourne itself—a crazy-cut mix of old and new, of tradition and innovation, of the safe and predictable and of the risky and risqué. Across our RMIT building—topped by a green blob that threatened to devour the building like a sci-fi nightmare—was the venerable State Library of Victoria, on whose front lawn people sunbathed and pleaded various causes ranging from the plight of Palestine to same-sex marriage.

I fell for Melbourne on my fourth and last day, when I took a more circuitous walking route across the Yarra River, which was filled with rowers practicing their strokes. Viewing the city from its South Bank, I could appreciate the quaintness of the 102-year-old Flinders Street Station, still holding its own against the onrush of the new century. The banks of the Yarra were litter-free, the water looked clean enough to swim in, and the air was clear and cool and kind to my walker’s lungs; how long would it be, I thought, until I could see a Pasig like this?

But my biggest surprise still lay ahead: just a few hundred steps short of completing eight kilometers, I decided to hit that mark by exploring the blocks behind my hotel—which happened to be in the Chinatown/theater district—and stumbled on the lovely Princess Theater. Playing, for the last two days, was a touring production of South Pacific (featuring, as Bloody Mary, the Filipino-Australian singing sensation Kate Ceberano).

I’m a sucker for Broadway—especially the old, romantic, sunlit Broadway of the ‘50s and ‘60s—and I can sing nearly every word of the South Pacific soundtrack, but had never seen it onstage. When I first learned that I was going to Melbourne, I’d Googled the city, and had seen this production mentioned and wished fervently that I’d get to see it; but I’d simply assumed that the Princess was too far out of my way and that I’d have no time for theater. But now it was right there in front of me—the stuff of my boyhood dreams, beckoning me like Bali Ha’i.

It was my last evening in Melbourne, and I’d accepted an invitation to an early dinner at my hotel with a bright, young Filipino-Australian couple, Fatima and her husband Rick Measham. But they’d said that they also had a show to catch at 7:30, so I figured I was safe if I booked a ticket for the evening performance. “What’s the cheapest seat in the house?” I croaked to the lady at the box office. She handed me a seat plan and X’d the topmost row: “$89.99.” I gulped—I’d never paid $90 for any show, not even on Broadway; but this was South Pacific, and I was in the South Pacific, and I would probably never see it again for the remainder of my sorry life, so I forked the money over.

I later told the Meashams that I was also going to the theater after dinner. “What show?” South Pacific. “That’s hilarious,” said Fatima. “We’re going there, too!” So we all walked the two or three blocks to the Princess, and I went on up to my eyrie in the bleachers. I was all by my lonesome in my row, and, taking pity on me, the usher invited me to move down, but I told him I was happy where I was—for there I could and did sing along, my straw hat on my lap, as the wondrous play unfolded far beneath me, and I felt my juvenile crush on Mitzi Gaynor surging back, even as I remembered my girl back home and wished she had been next to me in Melbourne.

The soundtrack was still playing in my earphones as I boarded my flight home the next morning, and I felt younger than springtime for having taken those few extra steps around the block.