Penman No. 401: A Workshop Against All Odds

Penman for Monday, November 23, 2020

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines National Writers Workshop has taken place every year—usually around Holy Week—since the mid-1960s, even during the years of martial law. For many young Filipino writers, it has been their initiation into the literary community, providing them with an opportunity to get their work read and critiqued by their peers and seniors. 

For some time now, the UP workshop has been aimed at what we’re calling “mid-career” writers—somewhat older writers who’ve already published at least one book. As I’ve often remarked, the only thing harder than writing your first book is writing your second one, and that’s when struggling writers need some help and encouragement to get over the hill.

We were all set to hold the workshop last April in Baguio, our usual venue, when the Covid pandemic struck, rendering any kind of live meeting reckless and stupid. We could have just written this year off, but we decided to try and move the whole week-long program online, via Zoom, and see if it could work.

I’m happy to report that, against all odds, it did. From October 19 to 23, we on the teaching staff of the UP Institute of Creative writing engaged with 12 fellows chosen as among the best representatives of their generation: Kathleen Osias (Fiction, English), Herlyn Alegre (Creative Nonfiction, English/Filipino), Christine Lao (Poetry, English), Honeylyn Joy Alipio (Screenplay, Filipino), Emmanuel Barrameda (Novel, Filipino), Emmanuel Dumlao (Novel, Filipino), Maynard Manansala (Play, Filipino), Jonellie Santos (Fiction, English), Raissa Claire Falgui (Fiction, English), Fatrick Tabada (Screenplay, Filipino), Glenn Diaz (Fiction, English), and Johanna Michelle Lim (Creative Nonfiction, English).

I knew three or four of these names—Glenn Diaz’s debut novel, The Quiet Ones, began in my class and went on to win a raft of prizes, and I had written admiringly about the Fatrick Tabada-scripted movie, Patay Na si Hesus. But I was glad to encounter many other talents new to me, such as the Cebu-based Johanna Michelle Lim, whose essay about living with vitiligo (the condition of albinos) was written with deep insight and artistry, and to discover new facets in such writers as Christine Lao, a lawyer who had studied Fiction with me but has more recently been known for her poetry. 

In the workshop, we ask the fellows to preface their works with a short essay on the why’s and how’s of their craft, and it was interesting to see how Christine approached her poetry from a lawyer’s point of view:

“One of the first things a law student in the Philippines learns is to produce case digests. A case digest is a summary of a court decision. There is a prescribed order in which information about the case is presented: first, a brief statement of relevant facts; second a statement of the disputed issue; third, the court’s decision; and fourth, the arguments in support of that decision. The practice of ‘digesting’ cases trains the student to think in a linear fashion—to recognize only those facts and arguments that support how the court disposed of—that is, terminated—the case. The student learns to follow the intricacies of a court’s legal argument, but at the expense of context or the consideration of counternarratives. Only those facts that are deemed relevant or material to the issue at hand are considered; those that are not are erased from the narrative. One learns that to win a case, one must excise certain details from the narrative, and enhance others that might allow for one’s cause to become legible to the court as a viable legal claim. 

“The case digest, therefore, is form, a technology that allows students to recognize resemblances between cases, claims, and positions. But the form produces a particular product or end—one that is driven by the desire to win, even if this means erasing facts. What if, instead of using legal terms in the context of a case digest, I wrote them as, or in the context of, poems about the law?”

There are downsides, of course, to a workshop-by-Zoom. The fellows understandably lamented the loss of a chance to bond as a batch over beer under the pine trees, and as anybody who’s used Zoom for an extended period of time knows, talking to a gallery of two-dimensional faces isn’t exactly enlivening. But to be honest, I and a few others found the format adequate and even appealing, because it was efficient, and being-home-based, allowed you to get back to whatever else you were doing without having to travel and deal with hotels and such. 

Whether we’ll need to do this again next year will depend on a host of larger factors, as will everything else in our academic and professional lives. But we have to count it as a minor triumph that we were able to pull this off at all—literature and good writing just won’t be locked down or quarantined.

On that note, I’d like to invite you all to a webinar on November 30, 1:30 pm on “The State of Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” sponsored by, among others, the Philippines Graphic. The keynote will be delivered by National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose, and literary editor and critic Lito Zulueta and I will give responses. It will be livestreamed on www.facebook.com/PhilippinesGraphic. See you next Monday!

Penman No. 400: A Book for the Pandemic

Penman for Monday, November 9, 2020

I BEGAN writing this column 20 years ago, shortly after I returned from nearly a year in England on a writing fellowship that eventually yielded my second novel, Soledad’s Sister

It was an exciting but also a challenging time, that turn of the century. We already knew that the much-ballyhooed Y2K threat was a colossal bust, but little did we imagine that even more titanic and very real dangers were just around the corner. Indeed, 2001 would see another Philippine President unceremoniously toppled, and then 9/11 would change the world and our sense of security forever, in much the same way as today’s pandemic will leave its scars for generations.

But in August 2000, I was in a plucky and hopeful mood. I was 46, an age when people are supposed to be approaching their peak. Professionally, that was probably true—I would become chair of the UP English department and then Vice President in a few years’ time. As a writer, I had ten books behind me by then, making me all puffed up like a preening peacock, but I had no idea that three-fourths of all the books I would write were still ahead of me, at the end of which I would feel properly deflated.

Into this happy turbulence came a call from an old friend from activist days, Millet Mananquil, and an invitation to write a weekly column for the Lifestyle section of the Philippine STAR. I felt flattered and elated; what better way was there to start a new century with? 

Before I left for England, for some years, I had been an editorial writer at the newspaper TODAY. It was a tremendous privilege (and responsibility) to work alongside the brilliant boss man Teddy Boy Locsin, who pretty much let me sermonize about the day’s politics and last week’s crime wave, but all that heavy-duty pondering left me a nervous wreck, and I begged Teddy Boy and our Lifestyle editor, the late Abe Florendo, to give me a column on the back page, where I could try to sound funny and maybe even witty, and which I would do for absolutely free, just so I could decompress. That’s how “Barfly” came to be—TODAY got a new columnist for nothing, and I kept my sanity.

By the time I returned, TODAY had folded up, but Millet’s timely invitation gave me new reason to have fun with words—without having to write editorials! It’s been 20 years since then, and yes, I have all my “Penman” column-pieces on file, about 1,065 of them at last count. Most of those pieces are probably forgettable, written on the run about whatever caught my fancy. But having retired from teaching and beginning to feel the slings and arrows of seniorhood, I began thinking last year about choosing what I thought were the most amusing of the lot—from getting my zipper stuck in the open position on a long flight to South Africa to crawling on my knees at the UP parking lot in search of a lost pen (in the finest tradition, you might say, of Mr. Bean)—and sticking them into a book.

I’m delighted to announce that that book—A Richness of Embarrassments and Other Easy Essays—is out, published by the UP Press, with joyful cover art by Robert Alejandro. That it emerged in the middle of a pandemic means there’ll be no fancy launch with wine and canapes, but as my preface below suggests, it’s just as well, because you probably need to laugh as much as I do:

“The 110 essays in this collection were selected from many hundreds that I wrote and published for my Penman column in the Philippine STAR between 2000 and 2019, a two-decade period that saw me returning from a nine-month writing fellowship in England on one end and retiring from my teaching and administrative positions at the University of the Philippines (UP) on the other. 

“In other words, I grew old writing these pieces, but while picking and putting them together, I also realized what a fun ride it’s been, despite and sometimes because of the gross absurdities of Philippine politics and society. I decided to choose my more lighthearted pieces to entertain the reader and afford him or her a moment of relief and refuge, to remind ourselves that a gentle smile can be as precious and hard-won as a triumphal scream. Humor and comedy may yet be the best way of surviving a period seemingly intent on reducing us to tears and despair. 

“Critics have remarked how different in temperament my fiction is from my more popular Penman persona, and how I can dwell obsessively on such topics as fountain pens, computers, ramen noodles, vocabularies, Volkswagens, and of course my dear wife Beng. That’s because, as with my fiction, I believe that there can be great stories behind the simplest things (along with the suspicion that the simplest things are never really that simple). 

“But the bottom line is, I need a break, and so do you. I hope you enjoy reading these pieces—just a few at a time—as much as I enjoyed writing them. 

“My deepest thanks go to my friends and associates at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, particularly Roland Tolentino and Neil Garcia, for supporting the book, and to my editors at the Philippine STAR, chiefly Millet Mananquil and Igan D’Bayan, for bearing with me all these years.”

(The book can be ordered online from the UP Press store on Lazada at https://tiny.cc/boi1tz.)

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP