Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali


Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017


The first time I saw Bali was 34 years ago. I was a much younger man, then only 29, an eager participant in a writers’ conference organized by F. Sionil Jose, in the company of other Filipinos who included, as far as I can remember, the late Rey Duque, Marjorie Evasco, Charlson Ong, and Fanny Llego. We spent a week in a villa on the steamy banks of Lake Batur, far away from the tourist traps of Denpasar and Ubud, which we would visit only at the very end of our trip.

It was my first time to attend an international gathering of writers, and I was deeply impressed by all the big names I met, aside from Manong Frankie himself—our host, the scholar S. Takdir Alisjabanah, among the pillars of Bahasa Indonesia; the Singaporean poet and professor Edwin Thumboo; the Malaysian poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra; and the Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim. I can’t recall a thing I said in the impassioned discussions that took place; that first time, it was all about listening and imbibing the wisdom of the masters in an environment that could not have been more conducive to inspiration.


The lake was a caldera, which explained the hot springs simmering on its fringes, where we joined the unabashed Balinese in their early-morning ablutions; at night, we argued literature under the spell of the stars and the aptly named Bintang beer, to the faint accompaniment of a gamelan symphony. The one discordant note that I would later write about in a short story was an ill-advised sortie across the lake to a private graveyard, which the locals resented; but even that was a writerly touch, an almost obligatory twist to a near-perfect plot. And rightly so: back home, Ninoy and EDSA had yet to happen, and the country was seething in the darkness.

These memories swarmed through my senses last week when I returned to Bali for yet another literary conference, the tenth annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), the region’s largest and most active literary network. Hosted by the Ganesha University of Education in the city of Singaraja in the northern part of the island, the conference brought together about a hundred delegates from all over, but mostly from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, and, of course, the Philippines, which has always figured prominently in this organization (I sit on its Advisory Board). With me were UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, the essayist and playwright Luna Sicat-Cleto, the poet and translator Randy Bustamante, and my wife the art restorer Beng, an avid observer and fully paid member of APWT.


Even the most jaded of writers can’t be faulted for flying into Bali and expecting a bit of paradise, and the island and its people can still deliver on that promise in spades. The manicured rice terraces, the monkeys lining the road, the meticulously patterned garlands, the whiskery banyan trees, the uncountable temples and altars—and let’s not forget the scenically smoldering Mount Agung on the horizon—all suggest transport to another realm of blissful serenity. That illusion, of course, was broken fifteen years ago by catastrophic terror bombings that took more than 200 lives, and in the course of our three-day conference, testimonials by our Balinese friends themselves would reveal certain painful realities behind the festive façade.

“It’s very difficult to be a Balinese woman,” more than one of them said (I’m pooling their voices together, as in a chorus). “People expect you just to be a pretty flower. I have a PhD and I make more than my husband, but I still have to appear subordinate to him and to his wishes, and I have to serve him at home, making his coffee and serving his clothes. When I received a fellowship abroad, people congratulated my husband, instantly assuming that it was his achievement and not mine—and I had to smile and say nothing about it. You know why I write in English? Because my husband can’t read English, so English liberates me, allows me to express my true feelings.”


Another intriguing panel I attended took up “Nostalgia and the Asian City,” and the discussion dwelt on how cities like Hong Kong and Singapore had changed in the literary imagination. But, from the floor, I had to interject the Philippine experience and note how nostalgia in many other places like ours referred to a longing for an unspoiled rural Eden that no longer exists, an unrecoverable if not fact an imaginary past. Over lunch, I pursued the point: nostalgia is being used as a powerful political tool, such as in defense of a mythical “better time under martial law” to support a restoration of that regime.

I was assigned to a panel devoted to protest literature, and found myself grouped with three Australians who spoke on their respective struggles as immigrant, aborigine, and bohemian writers. I chose to speak about our history of protest literature and what a deadly business it was. So, our moderator asked in the end, what were we personally doing to upend the status quo? The status quo for me, I said, was darkness and despair, and it was winning out even in literature, so that there’s nothing easier to write these days than another sad and dismal story. Therefore, I would strive to write happy stories—stories with a believably, hard-won, happy ending—as my form of resistance. We have to fight for joy as much as justice; we have to keep fighting for happiness, hope, and beauty in this age of Trump and tokhang—what else were we persisting for?

As I said those words—which I had not expected to say, but had long been coming around to saying—I felt all of my 63 years, hoping perhaps that some young soul in that audience was truly listening.



Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou


Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.


Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.


I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”


Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).


We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.


Penman No. 172: Going Against the Grain


Penman for Monday, October 26, 2015

I WAS asked to give the first keynote last week at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators at the University of the Philippines, on the conference theme of “against the grain,” and here’s part of what I said:

The Filipino writer is among the freest in the world as far as self-expression is concerned; but the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013.

Creative writing won’t pay you much, but you can say whatever you want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a dangerous enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

…. We have one of the region’s richest concentrations of writers, and very likely the region’s most strongly developed systems for the development of new writers; but these writers have precious few readers.

We have never lacked for writers, and likely never will. The Filipino writing community is very much alive, producing new work not only in English but in Filipino and in many regional languages.

Within the region, we can claim to have the oldest, the longest-running, and possibly the most comprehensive writing programs—not just writers’ workshops which go back 50 years, but also degree programs from the BA to the PhD in several major universities. The Palanca Awards, which are handed out every year to the best work in many categories and several languages, have been running now for 65 straight years.

New young writers will find it easier to break out and get noticed by their peers and seniors here than in many other places, because, while Filipinos respect their elders, and everyone above 40 is a “Sir” or a “Ma’am,” we do not have the kind of master-apprentice, or senior-junior relationship that exists elsewhere. You do not need a senior’s validation or sponsorship to advance; indeed you might move forward much faster by slaying a literary father or two.

But for all the literary talent we think we have, it can be argued that creative writers really don’t matter much in Philippine politics today—certainly not as much they used to—because, to be hyperbolic about it, no one reads, no one buys books, and no one understands nor cares what we’re doing.

It’s a sad fact that in a country of 100 million people, with a literacy rate of about 97%, a first printing for a new novel or book of stories will likely run to no more 1,000 copies—which will take about a year to sell, and earn the author a maximum of about P50,000 (about US$1,000) for a few years’ work—good enough for a new iPhone. There’s no such thing as a professional novelist or playwright in the Philippines, which makes it easier for writers of any worth to be sidetracked or co-opted by the government or by industry.

It’s ironic that Philippine literature’s political edge should be blunted not by timidity nor by censorship but by sheer market forces. The simplest reason many Filipinos don’t buy books has to be poverty, with the price of an average paperback being higher than the minimum daily wage.

But perhaps we writers ourselves are also to blame, for distancing ourselves from the mainstream of popular discourse. Politics is nothing if not the domain of the popular, and the very fact that many of us write in English is already the most distancing of these mechanisms. The question of language has always been a heavily political issue in multilingual Philippines, where some regionalists still resent the choice of Tagalog as the basis of the new national language Filipino in 1935, and where English is reacquiring its prominence not only as the lingua franca and the language of the elite but as our economic ticket to the burgeoning global call-center industry.

Political change in the Philippines has historically been led by the middle and upper classes, from the Revolution against Spain of 1896 to the anti-Marcos struggle of the 1970s and the 1980s to the Edsa uprisings of 1986 and 2001. Therefore, one might argue that English is, in fact, the language of reform and revolt in the Philippines in modern times.

But it is this same English-literate middle class—our potential readership—that is the strongest bastion of neocolonialism in the Philippines, blindly infatuated with Hollywood, hip-hop, and Harry Potter, keen on trading the local for the global, opportunistic in its outlook and largely unmindful of the social volcano on the slopes of which it has built its bungalows. As I often remind my fellow Filipino writers, our rivals on the bookshelves are not each other, but J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, Paulo Coelho, and Tom Clancy.

When I return to the two main points I raised—that we are free to speak and to write, but only in politically inconsequential forms; and that we have writers aplenty, but very few readers—I have little choice but to conclude that the main culprit is our self-marginalization through English, and the academicized, Western-oriented mindset the language encourages.

The interesting upside of this unfortunate situation is that—largely untethered from the considerations of commerce and politics—our writers have been free to write their hearts and minds out, producing poetry and fiction of a high quality that, in a double irony, might yet break through to the global market.

The triple irony would be that it sometimes takes the international spotlight for local readers to take notice of native genius. It sounds like wishful thinking, but by being here today, and connecting our literature to yours, we might do enough together to push our literatures to the forefront of our peoples’ consciousness.

But let’s face it: the margins are familiar if not comfortable territory to many of us, not only here but wherever we live and write, as they give us a clearer view of the center. Going against the grain is very much in the grain of how and why we work. And if you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t be here today.

Penman No. 171: All Systems Go for APWT 2015


Penman for Monday, October 19, 2015

IT’S “ALL systems go” for this year’s edition of the annual Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, which will be held in Manila later this week, from Thursday on to the weekend. As a member of the APWT Board and one of APWT 2015’s convenors, I’m particularly thrilled for the Philippines to be hosting this event, which is the literary equivalent of the APEC, the SEA Games, and let’s throw in The Amazing Race, which it could be a bit of for our foreign guests.

It’s not a competition, of course, and we won’t be signing any treaties or squabbling over territory. In fact, the way we’ve set things up, it’ll be a politician-free zone, which isn’t to say that politics will be off the menu. With topics ranging from “Sex and Sensitivities” and “Criminal Intent” to “Love in the Time of Dissonance” and “Why Publishers Prefer Outsiders,” there’ll be fireworks aplenty in the panel discussions we’ve put together for the three-day conference, which will be held at the Institute of Physics in UP Diliman on Thursday and Friday, before moving to De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas on Saturday.

I’ll be one of four keynote speakers for the conference, and will speak on the conference theme, “Against the Grain,” at UP on Thursday morning, to introduce the Philippines and our culture and literature to the audience, especially our visitors. I’ll be followed the next day by Romesh Gunesekera, the UK-based, Sri Lanka-born Booker Prize finalist who partly grew up in Manila, where his father had worked for the Asian Development Bank. At La Salle on Saturday, the indigenous Australian author Philip McLaren will keynote the meeting, and Jing Hidalgo will close the conference at UST with a talk on the “subversive memory” of women writers.

These 30-minute keynotes will be the exception, however. It’s an APWT hallmark to keep presentations short (no more than 10 minutes max) and informal (no footnoted academic papers on obscure topics, please—and no PowerPoint!). The key phrase here is “writers in conversation,” so we expect easy, freewheeling discussions around the topics given to each panel, with lots of time for audience interaction.

We’re expecting at least 50 foreign participants to join around 100 local authors in APWT 2015. Filipinos have always been well represented at APWT. Its annual meetings had been previously held in Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Perth, and Singapore, and this will be the first time it will be coming to Manila. Next year, we’re planning to hold it in Guangzhou, China.

If you want to meet with fellow writers, translators, publishers, and agents beyond our shores, you can’t do better than to sign up with APWT, a ten-year-old organization that has become the most active and visible network for writers and translators in the region. The great thing about APWT is that it was designed by and for practicing writers above all; while we have many academics, critics, and scholars among our members, theory isn’t our big thing, but practice—engagement with reading publics, dealing with shifting markets, connecting across the globe, adapting to new media, rolling with the political punches. If you’ve written what you think is a terrific novel and want to catch an agent’s or a publisher’s attention, APWT is the place to go.

Speaking of which, this year’s conference will offer six workshops that writers—both budding and accomplished ones—can sign up for, to sharpen their skills or explore new possibilities. You don’t have to attend the full conference to attend these workshops, which will be run by a sterling crew of international authors. Robin Hemley—who used to teach nonfiction at Iowa and now heads the Yale-NUS program in Singapore—will be handling one on “The Art of Memoir Writing”; Xu Xi, who directs the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, will teach fiction writing “with Asian characteristics”; the New Yorker Tim Tomlinson, another frequent Manila visitor, will share “Pitching Tips from the New York Writers Workshop” to help you sell your manuscript, at the same time that poet and editor Ravi Shankar will be teaching his students how to create “timeless verse”; at La Salle, Sally Breen will hold a master class in editing, to address “What Editors Want”; and simultaneously, Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin will employ improvisational techniques to engage participants in “Essaying Manila.”

I strongly urge those inclined among my readers to go out for one or two of these three-hour-long workshops, because you may never get the chance again to study directly with these masters, some of whom have become good friends of mine over the years and whose teaching and writing excellence I can swear to. There’s a fee to pay, but it will be well worth it, and you’ll remember the lessons you’ve learned long after you’ve forgotten how much they cost. Slots are limited, so sign up early. If you can’t pay in US dollars online, you can pay for the conference and/or the workshops at the door, in pesos (at a slightly higher rate of 50-to-1, to cover conversion and remittance charges).

Filipino citizens can attend the full three-day conference at a reduced fee of $40 or P2,000 (for students with IDs of UP, DLSU, and UST, the fee will be just P1,000); the workshops will each cost $40 or P2,000. These fees will include some meals and snacks provided by our generous sponsors and hosts, who include—aside from the three aforementioned universities—the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the British Council, Anvil Publishing, and the Japan Foundation.

For more information and for links to the registration page (again, you can also register and pay at the door), see here:

See you at the panels!

Penman No. 140: An Oktoberfest for Writers

Penman for Monday, March 16, 2015


FOR THE past several years now, I’ve been actively involved in a regional organization called the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has shaped up to be the liveliest and most active such grouping that I’ve joined. Writers and literary academics can join any number of professional associations and interest groups all over the world—ranging from the venerable and highly respected PEN to the more academically-oriented Modern Languages Association—and each of them will have their individual qualities and strengths, but nothing has worked quite as well for me as APWT.

The difference, I’ve found, is that this is a network that actually works as a network should—members get to know each other and help each other out on matters of both professional and personal concern; many become good friends, so you can always depend on being able to ring up a fellow writer in every port around the region for tea and sympathy. We meet as an organization once a year—it began in India, but has moved around to Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore. The Filipino delegation to these annual conferences has been increasingly large and substantial. Moreover, these participants are much less the familiar, senior faces like me than new, young, aspiring writers eager to establish their own contacts and networks.

This year, for the first time, APWT will be meeting in Manila, from October 22 to 25. As a member of the APWT Board, I’m helping to spread the word this early so Filipino writers can prepare to join the conference and present proposals for presentations at the conference sessions.

APWT 2015 is being spearheaded by the University of the Philippines’ Department of English and Comparative Literature, headed by its very capable chair, Dr. Lily Rose Tope, with funding from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Also providing key support are De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with further assistance from the British Council, Ateneo de Manila University, and Anvil Publishing.

For this year’s conference theme, we chose something close to our contrarian hearts: “Against the Grain: Dissidence, Dissonance, and Difference in Asia-Pacific Writing and Translation.” That’s a mouthful, but just think of going “against the grain” or against the current. Like I wrote in a blurb for the conference, “That theme comes out of several centuries of an other-mindedness that seems to come naturally to Filipinos. We’re very agreeable people, but we love to argue, sometimes just for the sake of it, and value freedom of speech above everything else. That makes for a robust if raucous democracy where there are absolutely no taboos or sacred cows.” In other words, in Manila, we can talk about anything in any way we like—which you can’t necessarily say for our more, uhm, circumspect neighbors.

We’re fortunate to have the Sri Lankan-born and now London-based Booker Prize finalist Romesh Gunesekera among our keynote speakers, especially since Romesh grew up in the Philippines, where his father was one of the founders of the Asian Development Bank. APWT 2015 will open and take place for the first two days in UP Diliman, then move to La Salle and UST on its closing day. (On opening night, Anvil will host a launch and poetry reading at the thematically apt Conspiracy bar on Viasayas Avenue.)

Aside from the main plenaries and readings, there will be at least ten breakout sessions for panels on such possible topics as literature in a time of terror; taboo and transgression; writing violence, writing trauma; transmedial translation (writing across disciplines); publishing outside the center; writing within/without/beyond the canon; regional literatures in a global context; the writing life; and translating Westward, translating in-country. We will also have a special “new voices” session and several workshops with renowned international experts.

So let me lead the call for proposals for presentations by interested Filipino authors. By “presentations,” we mean informal but well-thought-out discussions of literary topics of broad interest lasting no more than 10 minutes. APWT is not the venue for long, narrowly focused academic papers; you may wish to present popularized abstracts of such work, if applicable.

At APWT, people don’t read papers; they talk. We value the idea of writers and translators in conversation—among themselves, and with the audience. For this reason, we’ll make sure that the 10-minute limit will be strictly imposed (and I won’t mind wading in and pulling the plug myself), to allow for a longer and livelier Q&A. We will discourage the use of PowerPoint unless absolutely necessary to minimize setup delays and glitches.

By “proposals,” we mean a paragraph or two about your chosen topic, its significance and possible connection to the theme, and the main points you’d like to raise about it. The broader the appeal of the topic and the sharper the edge, the likelier it will be accepted. Proposals sharing a common thread will be grouped together.

Please provide a brief CV (with a high-resolution photograph, if possible) highlighting your background and expertise, as well as your contact information. Direct all submissions and inquiries to (No deadline has been set yet for proposals, but we’ll close the panels when we have enough of them; simple participation will be open until the conference itself.)

We’d also like to remind potential participants that APWT has no funds for the travel and lodging of participants, and has traditionally subsisted on the private initiative of its members, who are strongly encouraged to seek sponsorships for their participation. A modest conference and membership fee will be collected to help sustain the association’s other activities. We can send individual invitations either upon acceptance of your proposal or upon request. For more information about APWT, visit our website at

See you at APWT 2015!






Penman No. 118: To Teach Is to Persist

To-teach-is-to-persist-Penman-Butch-DalisayPenman for Monday, October 13, 2014


SOMEONE REMINDED me that World Teachers’ Day was celebrated earlier this month, on October 5. I forgot about it because I was—I am—overseas, on sabbatical leave until mid-2015. In our department at the University of the Philippines, we normally get just one sabbatical leave over the course of our teaching career, and typically, professors take it a few years before retirement. I’m five years away from that crossroads, so this is a good time to be away from the classroom and to recharge, which is what the sabbatical leave was originally designed for.

Wikipedia tells us that “Sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a ‘ceasing’) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, a sabbatical lasts a year.”

This sabbatical, however, is shaping up to be anything but a vacation, or a rest break. I may be cool and dry in an America turning pretty with the onset of autumn, but my workload is as tropically toxic as ever, with several books to complete, columns and articles to write, faculty advising duties to perform, and sundry interests—totally and thankfully unscholarly—to pursue.

I do get a respite from the classroom, but, perhaps ironically, that’s the part of teaching I miss the most. As we celebrated World Teachers Day, I also realized that I was marking my 30th year of teaching this November, and I asked myself what three decades of teaching have taught me. After some reflection, it came down to this: to teach is to persist in the perfection of our humanity and our citizenship. That sounds awfully grand to the point of being pompous and pretentious—don’t we, after all, just grab a book, drag our feet to class, and preach bunkum for an hour to a roomful of people with the pulse rate of zombies to earn our lunch and gas money?

There are, of course, many days just like that in a teaching career, days that blur one into the other until the end of yet another semester. And at some point, it’ll get to you: your speech starts slurring and your eyes get glassy, and you can’t wait until the bell rings or the hour hand moves; you had a long rough night, the car needs new tires, the bills are piling up, your thoughts keep drifting back to Paris or Palawan, and the last thing you or your students want to talk about is disease and social order in William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.”

Maybe ten years ago, I had such a day at the very start of the semester, and without realizing it, I must have been so bleary-eyed that I gave off the impression of not quite being there. To my great shock and dismay, one student later blogged about her disappointment with what she had seen; she had expected a stirring performance from her professor on Day One. It was a wake-up call, and I woke up; I promised that student that I would do my best to live up to her expectations, and I hope I did; we’re good, and she’s since gone on to a promising career in writing.

What I became acutely aware of then was that every teaching day is a performance, not unlike a show a professional actor studies and rehearses for, with the additional challenge that one simply doesn’t repeat the previous show, but keeps adding to it, improvising when possible to adapt to changes in the composition and the mood of every audience. I mutter my first lines to myself on the steps up to my classroom, ticking off the day’s main points and questions in my head; I take a deep breath, step into the door, flash a brief smile, and the day begins. And like the pro I have to be, I’ve learned to take care of myself, so I can teach well—to stay healthy, to sleep well (especially before a class day), and to think of something new to say or to bring to the next class.

So we all have our bad days, but it’s precisely on days like these when we need to remind ourselves of what a tremendous opportunity we have to make this Tuesday or Wednesday one of the most memorable in our young charges’ lives, through something we say, an idea or an experience we share, that will turn a key and open a door in their minds. Only in teaching can an ordinary, even a boring, day suddenly become indelibly special, with nothing more than thoughts and words—and the teacher’s persistence and faith in every student’s potential for transformation into someone more aware, more human, more Filipino. Perfectability? It’s more about the effort than the goal—and I’m sure that whatever we do for our students, we teachers do for ourselves as well.


SPEAKING OF teaching, my department has asked me to invite all teachers and students interested or involved in translation issues to attend the 6th Asian Translation Traditions Conference (ATT6) to be held October 23-25, 2014 at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.

The official flyer says that “The rationale for the ATT series is to challenge the Eurocentric emphasis of Translation Studies, which is largely due to the “unavailability of reliable data and systematic analysis of translation activities in non-European cultures” (Hung and Wakabayashi 2005). The ATT series was initiated by Professor Eva Hung of Hong Kong in 2002. A small but successful workshop was held in London that same year, followed by well-attended international conferences in India, Turkey, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates. It is hoped that ATT6 will lead to theorizing on translation and developing methodologies on translation arising from the specific historical and contemporary contexts of Asia.”

Hmmm, I think that needs to be translated: this conference will explore the theory and practice of translation in an Asian context. For more details, please visit

{Illustration by Igan D’Bayan of the Philippine Star.)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 37: The 2014 APWT Conference Tentative Program


Bridging Cultures: Creative Writing and Literary Translation in Asia Today

17-20 July 2014 

The Art House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Singapore

Program (Draft@24 April)* 

*Sessions or times are likely to change, so check back before the event.

Our ‘roundtables’ are so-called to encourage audience participation in conversations started by the featured authors.

Speaker biographies can be found here:

Thursday 17 July

08:30     Blue Room           Sign in, collect conference badge and handout.

Tea/coffee, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

09:00     CHAMBER           Welcome and Introduction.

09:15    CHAMBER            Opening Keynote (TITLE TBA) by Suchen Christine Lim.

09:50    CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. ‘What is Literature For? featuring the conference keynotes: Suchen Christine Lim with Linda Jaivin and Merlinda Bobis. Moderator TBC.

11.00     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

11:30     LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. Poetry: Art and Soul of It – This is a free-wheeling conversation about what poetry is and isn’t, led by Alfian bin Sa’at, Martin Alexander, Mani Rao, Menka Shivdasani, and Joshua Ip. Moderated by Jennifer Crawford.

11:30     CHAMBER           ROUNDTABLE. Twisting the Truth: Truth in Fiction, Lies in Non-Fiction. An exploration of story-telling as art and why we tell stories, with David Carlin, Lisa Walker (TBC), Michael Vatikiotis and Philip McLaren (TBC) – Moderated by Jose Dalisay.

12:45    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC.

2:00      WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Martin Alexander (COUNCIL ROOM) and Tim Tomlinson (Green Room). SEE DETAILS.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Remembering. This broad conversation about writing memoir will be kicked off by Sally Breen, Tony Birch), Jessie Cole (TBC), and Victor Marsh in conversation with Francesca Rendle-Short.

2:00       CHAMBER            ROUNDTABLE. The Art of Forgetting. Fiction can take us away from our ‘real’ lives into different ways of seeing the world. Novelists talk about their work, featuring Kathryn Koromilas, Dipika Mukherjee (TBC) and Angelo Loukakis, in conversation with Maria Carmen Sarmiento. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM   Conversation on Writing Today from Pakistan with Iram Shafique and Farheen Chaudhry and Qaisra Shahraz.

2:45        CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape in Indonesia. A panel discussion led by John H. McGlynn with others (TBC) includingIwan Sulistiawan who will talk about changes ‘From Discrimination to Multiculturalism: Indonesian Chinese in Indonesian Novels’. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

3:30     Blue Room       Refreshment, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:45    LITERARY WALK (TBC), organized by the Arts House. Meander through the fiction, non-fiction and fantasy of Singapore with award-winning writer Rosemary Lim (TBC). You will follow in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham, explore locations that inspired Rex Shelley and Edwin Thumboo. Discover Singapore as muse to novelists, playwrights and poets as you travel in time from colonial days to the present day through words and imagination.

4:00       Earshot Café     NEW WORK- Book Launches.

Help celebrate the launch of five new books. Menka Shivdasani launches an anthology of women’s writing from India; Eu Yoke Lin will launch her first book of poetry; John McGlynn launches a translation of a classical Malay tale “Krakatau: The Tale of Lampung Submerged”; Victor Marsh launches his memoir that draws on his experiences as a disoriented Australian who is initiated by a young guru; and Mani Rao will launch a Singapore edition of echolocation (Math Paper Press). Details will be available on a separate link.

6:30      Blue Room        Welcome Cocktails (TBC) – courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

EARSHOT CAFÉ (?)     Singapore Outloud (TBC). Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Martin Alexander and Alfian Sa’at.

Friday 18 July

09:00     WORKSHOPS (4 hours) with Tony Birch (COUNCIL ROOM) and Nury Vittachi (Green Room).

09:00    CHAMBER            KEYNOTE: ‘Border Lover in Uncertain Times: Story-Making Across Cultures, Languages, and Literary Forms’ by Merlinda Bobis

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableWhat Women in Asia Write About Now, with Merlinda Bobis, Menka Shivdasani (TBC),Mridula Chakraborty, Farheen Chaudhry, and Qaisra Shahraz. Moderated by Judith Buchrich

09:45     LIVING ROOM Roundtable – TBA

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45    LIVING ROOM   Gender Politics: Forcing the Issue– Victor Marsh, Jhoanna Cruz and Alfian Sa’at speak about issues that brought them out as writers. Moderator TBC.

10:45     CHAMBER           Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#1). This session discusses new magazines and other platforms with Zafar Anjum, Simon Clews, Martin Alexander, Kulpreet Yadav and others TBC, with participating moderator Kelly Falconer (Asia Literary Agency).

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

1:00        LIVING ROOM   Book launches. Help celebrate the launch of books by Lydia Kwa, Bhavna Khemlani, Bob D’Costa and Farheen Chaudhry. Details will be available on a separate link.

2:00    Workshops (4 hours) with Sally Breen (COUNCIL ROOM) and Merlinda Bobis (Green Room). See

2:00     CHAMBER      Writing Under Political Pressure. ‘Prison Makes Poets of Us All,’ wrote Filipino political prisoner Alan Jazmines. Maria Carmen Sarmiento discusses the literary work of some political prisoners in the Philippines. At the age of 18 Jose Dalisay was himself a political prisoner for seven months under Filipino martial law (1973) and wrote his first novel about that experience (1992). He now writes nonfiction history of that period. Others on this panel include Alfred Birnbaum who translated the censored work of Burmese novelist Nu Nu Yi. Moderated by Michael Vatikiotis.

2:00        LIVING ROOM   How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

2:45        CHAMBER           Links and Fragments into Narrative Wholes

What can be done when a novel gets stuck – when the writer just cannot imagine what the next action is?  Tim Tomlinson has suggestions, while prolific author Nury Vittachi adds advice of his own. Cristina Hidalgo who has authored more than 30 books will also offer a few tips. Moderator TBC. 

2:45        LIVING ROOM     IN CONVERSATION. Shirley Lee, translator of North Korean poet Jang Jin Sung’s recently published disturbing memoir Dear Leader, in conversation about the book, its success and the issues associated with its translation, in conversation with her with her agent Marysia Juszxakiewicz of Peony Literary Agency. TBC

3:30        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

4: 00       CHAMBER           Roundtable. On Teaching Creative Writing in English and the Influence of the Mother Tongue. Join this discussion withDai Fan who teaches one of the few English language creative writing courses in China, Jayanthi Manoj who teaches in Trichy, India, Filipino teacehers Hope Sabanpan-Yu and Christine Godinez-Ortega (TBC), and Indigenous Australian author and professor Tony Birch. Moderated by Francesca Rendle-Short.

4:00     LIVING ROOM

5:30        EARSHOT CAFÉ                 Singapore Outloud #2 – Poetry and short fiction readings with participating moderators Joseph Ip and Mani Rao.

Saturday 19 July

09:00     Workshop (4 hours) with Francesca Rendle-Short (COUNCIL ROOM). See details.

09:00        CHAMBER        KEYNOTE: Found in Translation – In Praise of a Plural Worldby Linda Jaivin.

09:45     CHAMBER           RoundtableTranslation Thrills and Spills. Translators speak about their translation process and challenges, and share hilarious moments from their experience translating authors and poets who are too close, too far, and even omnipresent. Linda JaivinKyoko Yoshida, Andrea Lingenfelter and Menka Shivdasani with participating moderator Mani Rao.

09:45   LIVING ROOM   CONVERSATION “ASIAN SAVVY”. Changes to the Literary Landscape and New Publishing Opportunities (#2). Join in this lively conversation led by Nury Vittachi who contends that ‘Asia’ is poised to lead the literary world.

10.15     Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

10:45     CHAMBER           How Translation Transforms both Text and Translator with Alfred Birnbaum, Andrea Berrini, Sun Xuefen (TBC) and Linda Jaivin, moderated by Mani Rao.

10:45     LIVING ROOM   Language and Politics: New Dynamics. Has the role of English shifted significantly in a postcolonial scenario? A dominant group can seize, assimilate, domesticate … is it any different when translating from English to vernacular languages? When so-called local, native or indigenous texts present culturally specific contexts, how can they be translated into more ‘universal’ contexts without misrepresentation? What goes into making non-English texts, “world literature”? If translation has now been exposed as colonial discourse, has it changed in a postcolonial context? Mridula Chakraborty, Antonette Talaue, Shafique Iram, Dipika Mukherjee(TBC) and/or Shirley Young-Eun Lee (TBC), moderated by Shelly Bryant.

12:30    Blue Room           Lunch, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC


1)      Re: Joint issue of Griffith REVIEW/ASIA LITERARY REVIEW publishers Susan Hornbeck (GR) and Martin Alexander (ALR), introduced by Jane Camens.

2)      Re: World Readers Award by Nury Vittachi.

3)      Overview of 2015 Meeting in the Philippines with Jose Dalisay (and the Filipino organizers).

1:00        CHAMBER           ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING of AP Writers. All members of AP Writers welcome. Appointment of a new Director and a new Translation Chair, account by the Executive Director of finances, and other matters aimed at improving and expanding AP Writers.

3:00        Blue Room           Refreshments, courtesy of the Arts House and NBDC

3:30 pm Literary Walk #2 TBC organized by the Arts House.

5:00        EARSHOT CAFÉ     Singapore Outloud #3 Readings, with participating moderators Bernice Chauly (TBC) and Sally Breen.

Sunday 20 July FREE PUBLIC DAY

 Full Public Program to come.

10:00   WORKSHOP Bring Out Your Best at POETRY SLAM with Marc Nair, organized by Word Forward. For poets intending to participate in our closing poetry slam. (Registered conference participants can perform in the Slam without attending this workshop.) Details to be provided soon.

From 10 AM, all day

  • Author conversations with Singapore and visiting authors before a public audience.
  • Readings with a Singapore audience.
  • Children’s session (2 pm) with Nury Vittachi. Other possible authors for this children’s session Bhavna Khemlani? Cris Barbra Pe? Angelo Loukakis? Others?

POETRY SLAM, organized by Word Forward.

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!


Penman No. 24: The Necessity for Nonfiction

NonfictionowPenman for Monday, Dec. 10, 2012

A FEW weeks ago, in Melbourne, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking before a global audience of experts in and practitioners of nonfiction—that broad branch of writing that straddles everything from journalistic reportage, history, and philosophical essays to personal memoirs, travelogues, and cookbooks. I gave one of the four keynote addresses in that three-day-long Bedell Nonfictionow Conference; the other speakers were David Shields, on collage and appropriation; Helen Garner, on the central place of the interview in nonfiction; and Margo Jefferson, on the boundary between criticism and nonfiction. I chose to take a less technical and more social tack, and talked about why, more than ever, there’s a need for nonfiction in this age of the Internet, particularly in places off the global literary centers like the Philippines.

I wasn’t alone in representing the Philippines and its literature. Lawrence Ypil, one of our brightest young poets who’s doing a second MFA at the University of Iowa, this time for nonfiction, spoke about using family photographs to solve a mystery, and also introduced the work of Resil Mojares and Simeon Dumdum Jr. from his native Cebu. Longtime activists Bonifacio Ilagan and Marili Fernandez-Ilagan discussed the political possibilities of nonfiction in print, film, and theater; Boni also gave a comprehensive overview of recent political nonfiction from the Philippines. Their talks provoked much interest, and reminded me of just how far ahead of the curve our writing is in many ways, despite the obvious obstacles to writing in a society that doesn’t seem to value books much.

So I used my keynote as an opportunity to reintroduce contemporary Philippine literature to others, highlighting our work in nonfiction, particularly that of the late, great Nick Joaquin. Below is the full text of that 40-minute talk (because of space limitations, I was able to provide only an excerpt for the newspaper column version of this piece):

Thank you all for this great honor of having me as one of the keynote speakers for this conference, and for this opportunity to introduce another literature and another literary experience to a global audience, from which we Filipinos have been largely removed. And who, exactly, are we Filipinos? Just two days ago, a Gallup poll revealed that Filipinos were the most emotional people on the planet. We laugh and we cry with equal facility—so don’t be too surprised if this talk descends from the sublime to the ridiculous within a paragraph of each other.

This being a keynote, let me assure you that this talk will be about more than our domestic literature, and that it will connect to the greater issues of nonfiction in the world. But I have chosen to begin on a point of disconnection, from the periphery, because our vagrant experience presents some interesting possibilities for looking at how nonfiction—if not literature itself—has served self and society outside of the West.

Indeed, these past few years, I’ve traveled around various literary conferences around the world with a stock speech titled “Why You’ve Never Heard of Me,” by way of addressing the relative obscurity in which the Filipino writer has labored—even and especially in the company of our fellow Asians such as the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Indians who have understandably gained much greater international attention and prominence.

In sum, my thesis is that we Filipinos don’t write enough novels, and the novel has been the ticket to literary fame and consequence in 20th century publishing. It also hasn’t helped that, as a former colony of Spain and the United States, we are out of the Commonwealth loop. We no longer write in Spanish, and as for our writing in English—a thriving, century-old literature—the Americans (with the notable exception of Robin Hemley) don’t quite know how to receive it, despite its troubling familiarity, like the bastard child who suddenly appears at the door with an expectant smile. We also have a robust literature in our other national and regional languages, but again they hardly connect to the other native literatures of Southeast Asia, in gatherings of which the non-Bahasa-speaking Filipino has often been the odd person out.

That’s all the more strange when we consider the Filipino diaspora which—like that of the Indians, the Nigerians, and many other ambulatory nationalities—has taken our workers all over the planet. We are you maids, your nurses, your sailors, your entertainers. One-tenth of our population of over 90 million people now live and work overseas, in places as remote to us as Iceland, Angola, and Syria, providing not just the foreign remittances that keep our economy afloat but also a wealth of material for our literary imagination. Indeed it often takes the literary imagination, more than journalistic reportage, to sort out these experiences of dislocation.

But why even go abroad for alienation? If there’s anything colonialism does to the colonized, it’s to leave behind two states of mind, often manifested in two or more predominant languages, one of which represents the colonial elite. That’s American English in our case, and while it’s given us a global edge in the BPO or call-center industry—in which we now rank second, next only to India—it has produced no comparable literary dividends, with our literature in English trailing far behind India’s, and even behind translations to English from the Chinese and Japanese, in the attention of the world.

Thus we represent an insular experience. But like exotic species which—after a geological point of separation—have survived and mutated on their own in some tropical plateau or some literary Galapagos, literatures like ours can be interesting and useful objects of study, because they manifest both fundamental similarities to and striking departures from the biological mainstream. They speak back to the mainstream, as I am speaking today, and offer up a mirror—perhaps a somewhat distorted or distorting mirror—in which others can see versions of themselves.

Our insularity has resulted in some interesting courses of evolution. Given the absence of a market for novels, we have developed our strengths in poetry and the short story. Given further that there is no money to be made either in poetry or the short story—but also that these genres require little material investment—our writers have focused on producing the best art they can, rather than on satisfying a market (and there was, arguably, a market for these in our newspapers and magazines of the early 20th century, when they were part of the entertainment mainstream).

In the case of Philippine nonfiction, curiously enough, more titles have been emerging over the past 20 years—memoirs, biographies, histories, essays, travelogues, cookbooks, and motivational materials for business and religion. Most it not all of this production has been in English rather than in the national language, Filipino—not surprisingly, since books are expensive and considered non-essential items in a country still largely poor, and the people who can buy books at and for their leisure speak and write in English. (Parenthetically, this introduces another interesting element for further thought: if translating language means inevitably translating experience, what goes on in nonfiction in a foreign or borrowed, and especially a colonial, tongue? Whose stories tend to get told, and how, from what perspective?)

There has also been a perceptible rise in enrollments in courses and workshops for nonfiction, seen by many—correctly or otherwise—to be a less formidable and more accessible entry point to writing than fiction or poetry.

The rising global popularity of nonfiction is manifest in the region. A quick glance at the recent titles taken up by the Hong Kong-based Asian Review of Books will reveal a clear preponderance of nonfiction, covering such diverse topics as the undercities of Mumbai, Christianity in Communist China, the Thai monarchy, the Amritsar Massacre, the Jewish community in Shanghai, and Japanese ninjas. Not surprisingly, much of this nonfiction deals with China and India, being both the largest sources of and markets for such work. There is great interest in the West in these two countries, as well as in Japan and Korea, because their economies are umbilically tied to those of the West.

But let me go beyond money and markets, and talk about the necessity for nonfiction in less familiar and less mediagenic countries such as ours.

To state the obvious, nonfiction provides an alternative to fiction and of course to itself. In the first instance, I don’t simply mean the choice the reader faces at the bookshop at any given moment between buying a novel or a book of essays, but as a means to appreciating the truth, in which everyone is presumably interested and invested.

That truth can be particularly elusive in a country and society where there has been a longstanding tradition of suppressing it—in our case, the nearly two decades of the rule of Ferdinand Marcos, carrying over to his successors, one or two of whom turned out to be even more adept than Marcos in kleptocracy and in hiding the truth.

In this experience we Filipinos can hardly be alone, given the emergence and in many cases the continuing rule of autocrats, despots, and demagogues around the world, from Asia and the Middle East to Africa and Latin America. Personal accounts and testimonies are important in such places where an “official version” of events is often promoted, if not enforced.

While fiction might best capture the grotesqueness of life and the absurdity of the truth in many of these places—and I’ll get back to this later—it is nonfiction that bears the burden of presenting the facts on the ground, often at great risk to the author and even to the reader.

It was just a little over a week ago when PEN International marked the Day of the Imprisoned Writer—an issue I could personally relate to, having been imprisoned for seven months in 1973 at age 18 not for writing any earth-shaking novel but rather political flyers and such ephemera. Among those on PEN’s list of “focus cases” was Ericson Acosta, a young poet and activist who had been writing and filing reports on human rights abuses in the Philippine countryside. He has been held without trial since February last year—ironically, under the regime of President Benigno Aquino III, whose family has been canonized for its espousal of civil liberties.

The authoritarian State not only seeks to stifle the truth: it is an active and imaginative producer of fiction. In the Philippines, this was never more palpable than during the long years of martial law, from 1972 until the expulsion of the Marcoses—at least for the time being—in 1986. Let me share a few stories in this regard.

In 1964, just before he first ran for President, Marcos commissioned Hartzell Spence—an American author and editor of Yank magazine, who contributed the word “pinup” to the vocabulary—to write his biography, titled For Every Tear a Victory (later reissued as Marcos of the Philippines), of which a film version was later made. These biographies touted Marcos’ wartime heroism, for which he supposedly received 27 medals, thus becoming the most highly decorated soldier of the war on the American side. Most of these decorations were subsequently proven to be fake. Spence reported that Marcos sustained wounds from singlehandedly engaging 50 Japanese soldiers in a gun battle, a claim Newsweek later disproved. Marcos also claimed to have led a guerrilla force of more than 8,000 men, which the US Army dismissed upon investigation as “fraudulent” and “absurd.”

There was no doubt that Marcos was a brilliant fellow—he topped the bar examinations in 1939, having reviewed for the exams while in prison for allegedly shooting his father’s political enemy at night between the eyes; the young Marcos had been a sharpshooter with the ROTC, and was the natural suspect. He defended himself before the Supreme Court and was acquitted, and the legend was born. Indeed, it was easier to create and to promote the myth because the known facts in themselves seemed incredible enough.

Sometimes the myth was not about himself, but about the nation and its prehistory. In 1971, one of the biggest stories to rock the anthropological world was the discovery of the Tasaday, supposedly a Stone Age tribe that had somehow survived in the Philippine South in benign innocence, well into the 20th century. They made the cover of the National Geographic and were hailed as if Adam and Eve themselves had stepped wild-eyed out of Eden, until skeptical parties spoiled the fun by decrying the Tasaday as an elaborate hoax. As chronicled by Robin Hemley, more responsible investigation has since established that the truth very likely lay somewhere in between—that the Tasaday were neither quite that ancient nor that synthetic, but had lived largely by themselves for a long time. The Marcos government, however, felt deeply invested in validating the notion of a lost tribe, as it seemed to extend the arc of development even farther back, as if to say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

To make sure that the future got things right, in 1977, Marcos published a multivolume history of the Filipino people under his own byline, titled Tadhana, or “destiny,” for which he had actually commissioned some of the country’s most eminent historians.

To reach beyond the range of books, the Marcoses ventured into film. One of the most memorable projects I’ve ever worked on—if only because of its intentions—was an abortive film epic conceived and commissioned by Imelda Marcos, circa 1978, involving the production of a four-hour extravaganza on Philippine history from Ferdinand Magellan to Ferdinand Marcos. This was to be the Marcoses’ version of Hitler’s Triumph of the Will. But instead of having just one Leni Riefenstahl, Imelda wanted eight of the country’s top film directors and their scriptwriters to stitch the opus together, dividing four hundred years of Philippine history among themselves into a half-hour segment each.

As it was the height of martial law, there was no saying no to the Madame, and film director Lino Brocka took me along, as a 24-year-old rookie scriptwriter, to a meeting with Mrs. Marcos in a State guesthouse near the presidential palace where, over bottomless cups of coffee and increasingly crumbly cupcakes, she lectured us for at least six hours on how to make a good movie. The meeting lasted so long that we had to be issued special passes, because a 10 pm curfew was in effect, and we staggered home around 2 am. The movie was done, but for some reason was—and I should probably add thankfully—never shown and never seen in its entirety, not even by its makers. It remains one of the great mysteries of mythmaking under martial law—all those reels of footage devoted to the historical inevitability and apotheosis of Marcos, which must now lie in a warehouse somewhere in Manila and have themselves become historical relics.

But this kind of mythologizing did not begin nor end with Marcos, and it would be naïve to think that other Filipino leaders did not avail themselves of the power of fiction—or, otherwise, the power of silence.

Let me point out here quickly that while repression remains a very real threat in our society, Philippine literature and journalism are wonderfully wanton—we have no sacred cows, no taboos. We feel free to write as we please, if only because we suspect, with some justification, that the government is functionally illiterate, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you say in your obscure novel or inscrutable poem. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no political backlash, when someone upstairs does read or misread your report in the newspaper, the magazine, or online.

Those genres tell us something, by the way—that, at least in the Philippines, nonfiction is a far riskier enterprise than fiction. Statistics kept by the international Committee to Protect Journalists show that 73 Filipino journalists have been killed since 1992. So far, no novelists or poets have figured on the death list.

Some of our journalists eat death threats and libel suits for breakfast. One of them has been Marites Vitug, a groundbreaking magazine editor and investigative reporter whose two books on the Philippine Supreme Court—and the shenanigans within, which culminated in the recent impeachment of the Chief Justice—have become two of the hottest nonfiction titles in town. I copyedited both books—doing the first one anonymously, asking my name to be left out of the acknowledgments—not necessarily because I feared for my life or freedom, but because I knew that the book would result in a libel suit which would be more an annoyance than anything; I had many foreign engagements lined up and a libel suit (two of which I’d already faced myself, one from the former President’s husband) would mean that I would have to secure permission from the court even to spend, say, a weekend in Hong Kong. Sure enough, Vitug got slapped with a libel suit and a death threat, which thankfully went nowhere.

But speaking of journalists, let me introduce a name that will be unfamiliar to most of you, by way of celebrating the indigenous explosion of creative nonfiction around the world.

Born in 1917, Nicomedes Marquez Joaquin, better known as Nick Joaquin, was, by popular acclamation, the greatest Filipino writer of his generation, a man who effortlessly straddled the worlds of street-level journalism and highbrow fiction. He practiced New Journalism well before the term was coined, and wrote true-crime fiction well before Truman Capote put it on the publishing map. To Nick—and to use his own words—journalism was “literature in a hurry,” and Nick Joaquin seemed to be in an awful hurry, producing an average of 50 feature articles a year, according to his biographer. He wrote these under a pseudonym that was also an anagram of his surname, Quijano de Manila. He would also write some of the most memorable Filipino short stories and plays of his time, in an English inflected with the exuberance of the Spanish he also knew and loved, but it was his unique reportage that made him accessible to a broad public. He took on all subjects—politics, crime, showbiz, and sports.

According to critic Resil Mojares, “He raised journalistic reportage to an art form. In his crime stories—for example, ‘The House on Zapote Street’ (1961) and ‘The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society’ (1961)—he deployed his narrative skills in producing gripping psychological thrillers rich in scene, incident, and character. More important, he turned what would otherwise be ordinary crime reports (e.g., a crime of passion in an unremarkable Makati suburban home or the poor boy who gets caught up in a teenage gang war) into priceless vignettes of Philippine social history.”

I’m going to read you a few short paragraphs of his prose, just to suggest his treatment of his material, and also his language:

In “Flesh and the Devil,” published in January 1962 in the Philippines Free Press, Joaquin introduced a story of white slavery by harking back to ancient mythology:

Proserpine, in classic myth the daughter of the earth mother, was kidnaped by the lord of the underworld and carried to hell. Rescued and brought back to earth, she found herself alien to its light and flowers; half of her heart had turned dark; she had eaten of hell’s pomegranates and must ever partly dwell in shadow.

The pomegranates of hell were news last week in the story of four girls who said they had escaped from hell after several months of an evil bondage; their flesh had been made merchandise. Three of the girls are 19 years old, but the fourth is a child of 15, and her name is Proserpina.

But he could be as hard-boiled as they came. In “The Mystery of the Murdered Bigamist,” published in May 1961, he reported on the discovery of a corpse:

He had been stabbed eight times in the left breast, his throat had been slashed, and he had been hit so hard in the face his left eyeball had sunk. He had been trussed up with a rope, his hands and feet bound together behind him, and he had been stripped of his wallet, watch, ring, and shoes…. In the ditch where he was found, the police found the bloodstained fragments of a letter in Pampango. The writing was almost illegible, but the signature was clear: Felino.

And always, Joaquin sets the piece in its larger context, as the enactment of an ageless drama. Reporting in 1963 on the bloody assault of a government office by private security guards gone rogue who had axed the skulls of their victims—also security guards—he would write that:

In the August 26 robbing of the Rice and Corn Administration’s main office in Manila, the security-guard culture, long a-ripening, has burst into saga and epic. The eyer is now the eyed, and the figure that has so long lurked at the edges of our consciousness has moved into the center of our attention. We stare at the symbol of our unsafeness.

Security guards were the victims, security guards were the villains… The tragedy happened within a special sphere, among an esoteric society or knighthood of men bound by their own codes, their own private rituals, a shared lore…. A couple of the invaders had been false to the code of the brotherhood and had been ousted, and returned in stealth and were let in, because they knew the secret words and rites.

Joaquin goes on to chronicle sundry acts of mayhem and mésalliance: the murder of a movie star’s delinquent son; the affair between a Filipino ambassador and a German baroness; an abortive shooting of an actor who later became President of the Philippines. Despite his many awards for his fiction and drama, he never considered journalism beneath him. In 1996, he said that “Journalism trained me never, never to feel superior to whatever I was reporting, and always, always to respect an assignment, whether it was a basketball game, or a political campaign, or a fashion show, or a murder case, or a movie-star interview.”

In 1977, his best journalistic pieces were compiled in several anthologies, under the titles Reportage on Crime, Reportage on Lovers, and Reportage on Politics, and eventually these selections grew to more than ten books; in addition, he wrote histories, almanacs, and a dozen biographies.

I brought up Nick Joaquin (who died in 2004) not just to introduce a name, but also to show that the New Journalism and creative nonfiction were laying down native roots in other parts of the world outside of the West—certainly not only in the Philippines—before we knew them by these terms. Joaquin’s Free Press pieces, which began in 1957, antedated Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was published in 1966. Of course Capote never claimed to have invented the true-crime genre, and neither did Joaquin, and more thorough investigation will easily turn up far earlier examples from all around the world.

Indeed, we are often referred back to the Scotsman William Roughead, who began attending trials at age 19 and, in 1913, published the first of many collections, Twelve Scots Trials, which he called “adventures in criminal biography.” It’s instructive that Roughead lamented his publisher’s choice of that title, which he thought was too dry. He said that “Trials suggested to the lay mind either the bloomless technicalities of law reports or the raw and ribald obscenities of the baser press.”) You’ll note that in this desire to eschew “bloomless technicalities” and “raw and ribald obscenities” lies the fundamental impulse for creative nonfiction.

The highest crimes, of course, are often perpetrated by the State, and this again is where the greatest value of nonfiction lies, in unraveling the truth where the outcome could affect the lives and fortunes of millions. Sometimes the most significant outcomes are no more immediate and practical than an understanding of the past, especially when alternative histories face off against each other.

This is where nonfiction competes against itself, one version versus another. We often speak of nonfiction in the same breath that we say “the truth,” as if nonfiction and the truth were interchangeable, but this is something that everyone in this conference should know cannot always be so. Nonfiction is, in a sense, a process rather than a product, a way to establishing certain verities most of us can accept or agree with or recognize, albeit with some resistance.

Most notably, nonfiction is an arena for competing histories or interpretations of history. This again is particularly important where the formation of a people’s self-image is involved, especially in a colonial or postcolonial context.

Traditional historians, for example, have viewed and represented the uprisings of poor peasants in the Philippines as the epileptic seizures of cultist fanatics, rather than legitimate and inevitable revolts of the feudal oppressed. The communist guerrillas who fought the Japanese in the Second World War and struggled on against the American-supported postwar regime—much like the Vietnamese resistance—were presented as power-hungry troublemakers and stooges of the Soviet Union and Red China, disregarding their deep nationalist and anti-imperialist orientation.

These histories and their alternatives continue to be written in my country and, I’m sure, in yours. In my own nonfictional work, I’d like to think that I’ve contributed to this conversation through the biographies and institutional histories that I’ve been writing, about which I’ll say more in this afternoon’s panel discussion on nonfiction from the Philippines. Nonfiction is even more essential in this age of Facebook and Twitter, when every event is deemed newsworthy within five seconds of its occurrence, for even the worst—or some would say the best—of gonzo journalism bears some of the composure and the composition of art.

Nevertheless, the argument can always be made that sometimes the best response to fact is fiction—not the fiction of the State, but the fiction that emanates from deep within the individual’s heart and conscience, bodied forth by the free imagination. Fiction—especially the kind of realist, pre-postmodern fiction that still predominates in Asia—is relentless in its effort to make sense of events and of the characters who impel them. Our narratives tend to be straightforward, transparent or at least translucent rather than opaque, trading cleverness of presentation and virtuosity of language for what is seen—or hoped to be seen—as honest, heartfelt storytelling, the object of which is the understanding of character and the improvement of community.

Our national hero Jose Rizal was an excellent polemicist who scored the abuses and effects of Spanish colonial rule in one essay after another—but it was his two novels from the 1880s, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, that captured both the obviousness of the need for some kind of revolutionary action and yet also the complexity and difficulty of making this choice. His farewell poem, supposedly written in his prison cell on the eve of his execution by firing squad, is impressed in the national consciousness.

Under martial law, when our presses were shut down and all the newspapers and magazines were producing hosannas, it was poetry, fiction, and drama that took up the fight—slyly, stealthily, employing such disguises and devices as we knew would escape the regime’s eyes and yet catch the public’s. In 1983, when Sen. Ninoy Aquino returned from exile in the US, only to be gunned down by an assassin at the airport—thereby precipitating a chain of events that would ultimately lead to Marcos’ downfall and departure—my reaction was to write not an essay, but a novella set in 1883, with a revolutionary agent returning from Hong Kong being assassinated on his homebound voyage.

I’ve also written a novel about those years, about growing up under Marcos and about our complicity in the whole project; but one of these days I’d like to embark on my dream project, which is an oral history of our martial-law experience through the eyes of various protagonists from all the sectors involved—the resistance, the government, the military, the businessmen, the citizens.

And then perhaps we will understand why, 40 years after they virtually proclaimed themselves rulers for life over one of the happiest and yet also the most dolorous people on the earth, and even long after the downfall and the death of their patriarch in 1989, the Marcos family remains staunchly embedded in our political firmament, with Imelda Marcos in Congress, her daughter Imee in the governor’s mansion, and her son Ferdinand Marcos Jr., now a senator, being groomed for the presidency. It was as if martial law never happened—and to many Filipinos, especially the young, it never did.

Simply put, the full story of this most traumatic episode in our modern history has yet to be told. Most of us never knew what happened behind the barbed wire; most of us never understood that the prison began well before the barbed wire, and extended into our homes and our subconscious. We cannot remember what we never knew, and we can never learn from what we cannot remember.

And this, ultimately, is the necessity for nonfiction—whether it comes in the form of personal memoir or national history, of comic musing or tragic reflection, of travelogue or cookbook, of political polemic or erotic encounter: it constrains us to confront the tangible world, reminds us of our vulnerable, mutable, insurgent physicality, and connects us to a shared past, present, and future. Today it connects me to you and our literature to yours, for which opportunity I once again am deeply grateful.