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. 54: Calling All Filipino Writers

APWTPenman for Monday, July 8, 2013

I’LL BEGIN with a sheepish apology (and a word of thanks) this week, for a stupid mistake I made in my piece about hats a couple of weeks ago. I was in the car on my way to a meeting in Makati last Wednesday when I realized to my great horror that I’d written something very wrong, and resolved to fix the problem in the blog version of my column at, but of course, before I could do that, an alert reader named “Nestie U” caught the error and pointed it out to me. I’d written that “felt” meant “mashed leather pulp,” but it’s certainly not—it’s wool, not leather. It probably won’t mean much to most people, but if we self-proclaimed wordmeisters don’t get finicky about words and what they mean exactly, then who else is going to care? Many thanks again, Nestie, for reminding me of what a confused and forgetful fellow I could be, sometimes.


THIS IS going to be a week of announcements, not because I’m too lazy to write a properly thought-out column—you know how I can go on and on about my pet causes and peeves—but because my involvement in certain literary organizations and concerns gives me access to news and information that (given the usual space limitations) might not even make it to the literary or culture section of most newspapers. (Here in the STAR, of course, we do our best to keep you abreast of the most important and interesting goings-on in the cultural front.) So let’s get on with the literary news—these just in!

For writers, the first and most vital announcement I have to make is a call for all alumni of writers’ workshops sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to take part in a tracer study being conducted by the National Committee on Literary Arts, on which I sit as a member.

Most people don’t know this, but the NCCA—the government’s funding agency for cultural programs—has been supporting most if not all of the country’s major writing workshops for almost 20 years now. Without the NCCA’s substantial support, these workshops would have been forced to shut down a long time ago, or would never have become as highly developed as they are now. The workshops enable young writers to meet both their peers and their seniors, examine and affirm the writers’ talent, and initiate them into a community that can help sustain their productivity for life.

The UP workshop, for example, has been held every year for almost half a century, and while we now take only 12 fellows a year, we used to have more, so if you average everything at about 20 fellows per batch, we would have produced almost 1,000 alumni fellows since the beginning. Add to these the fellows who’ve gone to the Silliman, Iligan, Iyas (La Salle Bacolod), and other NCCA-supported workshops in the regions.

Like any other government agency, the NCCA has to be publicly accountable for how it spends the people’s money, so we at the NCLA thought of initiating a tracer study to see exactly how these workshops have helped our writers in their careers—say, in terms of books written and published and awards won for their work, among other criteria.

We’ve asked Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega of MSU-IIT to be the project leader for the first phase of this project, and Christine and her team have formulated a set of questions that we’d like all workshop alumni from 1994 to 2010 to respond to. If you’ve attended and benefited from one of these workshops, please click on the link following and fill out the form. research-extension/ncca/ tracer.php. Your response will go a long way to help sustain government support for the development of Philippine literature, as well as create a very helpful database and virtual network of all workshop alumni.

The second item on this week’s literary agenda is another call, this time for papers to submit to the “Reaching the World 2013” conference, scheduled for October 3-6, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. Spearheaded by the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association, the conference is co-sponsored by Chulalongkorn University, the SEAWrite Award, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Among many other Filipino writers, I’m one of the founding members of APWriters (, which has become one of the most active and viable organizations of writers and academics in the region. Last year, a formidable contingent of Filipino writers attended this conference, also in Bangkok, and our participation there left a very positive impression on the organizers and our fellow delegates, so much so that this year, I’ve been asked to head the Academic Committee that will receive proposals for papers and presentations.

Bangkok has been named by UNESCO as the World Book Capital for 2013, which is why we’re returning there (aside from the fact that Bangkok and Thailand are worthy of visiting for food, fabulous sights, fantastic shopping, foot massages, and other pleasures anytime, given any reason or excuse). Its famed Oriental Hotel has also hosted the annual SEAWrite Award, honoring the region’s best writers. (That’s a session from last year’s conference in the pic above.)

“Reaching the World 2013” will bring together authors, literary translators, scholars, teachers of Creative Writing, publishing professionals, and others from Asia and beyond. This three-day international conference with workshops and a free public day will enable writers, readers, scholars, students, publishing industry professionals and interested members of the public to network and share their work.

APWriters is a fairly open and friendly organization, and you just have to be a writer, a translator, a teacher, or have an interest in either writing or translation to sign up. Even in the academic area of the organization and the conference, we try to remain accessible, preferring discussions on topics of broad application to obscure and highly specialized ones that only a very few can understand and appreciate.

This year, for the conference, we are inviting papers and presentations on the following subthemes: Teaching Creative Writing; Literary Translations; Cultural Identity; Food in Literature; Music/Art in Literature; Online Writing; Young Writers; Literary Fiction; Creative Nonfiction (including biography and memoir); Poetry; Genre Fiction; and other related topics. Our main focus, however, will be the teaching of writing.

To offer a presentation or longer paper with a focus on teaching and practice of creative writing, email me, Jose (“Butch”) Dalisay, Chair of AP Writers’ Academic Committee, at Deadline: August 10.

To offer a presentation or longer paper on literary translation, email Eliza Vitri Handayani, Chair of AP Writers’ Translation Committee, Deadline: August 10.

If you’re teaching Creative Writing at a university which offers this discipline and would like to offer a half-day or full-day workshop, send a paragraph describing the workshop you’d like to offer along with a brief bio to AP Writers’ Board Member Xu Xi at

If you would like to read your poetry or discuss your creative writing on the panels at the public forum on Sunday, October 6, in the Bangkok Arts & Culture Centre, or if you want to launch a new book at “Reaching the World 2013,” email Jane Camens at

I’ve reminded the early birds who’ve already emailed me to express their interest in presenting a paper that they will have to produce a ten-minute-maximum version of their paper (and that time will include setting up PowerPoint, should they need it). I’ve noticed that here in Asia, we tend to be too respectful of each other in terms of extending time limits, which many paper presenters routinely ignore, droning on and on without compunction. Well, I’m going to pull the plug on any such miscreant (I think it’s a gross discourtesy to the next speaker and to the audience itself to speak beyond one’s allotted time), so please practice your presentation with an alarm clock before leaving home.

There’ll be a small conference fee (last year it was only USD$50 per participant) and we have no travel funding whatsoever to offer anyone, including ourselves, so save up and book a budget fare early, and see you in Bangkok in October!


Flotsam & Jetsam No. 15: One Night in Bangkok

ALMOST AS soon as we got home from New York, Beng and I flew out to Bangkok where I  was speaking at a conference. We stayed in a boutique hotel in Sukhumvit, a lively district that becomes even livelier after dark. I ran into this outdoor “bar” complete with disco lights outside our hotel—a new life for an old VW Kombi. Cheers!