Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

l1030996

Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN nearly 20 years since I received the news that I had won the biggest writing grant of my life. I was 45 and raring to work on my second novel, and had a germ of an idea, suggested by the sad parade of caskets that arrived almost daily at Manila’s international airport. I knew that our overseas workers and their experience was the big story of that period, but I needed time away from teaching to get started on the project, so I applied for a new grant that was being offered at the University of East Anglia in the UK for what was described then as “a novel of Asia.”

The UEA website describes that fellowship thus: “The David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship is a unique and generous annual award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about the Far East to spend a year in the UK, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Fellowship is named for its sponsor Mr. David Wong, a retired Hong Kong businessman who has also been a teacher, journalist and senior civil servant, and is a writer of fiction. The Fellowship was launched in 1997 and the first Fellow appointed from 1st October 1998.” (Collections of short stories are now accepted in lieu of the novel. The UEA and its writing program are acknowledged to be the leader in the field in the UK, with Booker Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Anne Enright among their distinguished alumni.)

2586062407_3c893e8374_b

I honestly can’t remember now how I chanced upon the Wong Fellowship—these were the early days of the Internet in the Philippines, when modems screeched like mating cats before connecting over phone lines—but Beng and I soon packed our bags for the privilege of a lifetime. It would take a few more years, but that idyllic journey eventually gave birth to Soledad’s Sister, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and published in 2008. I was only the second Wong Fellow, and after me, in 2003, another Filipino followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy, now based in Denmark, whose novel Sweet Haven also began taking shape in Norwich.

Last month came the terrific news that yet another Filipino, Nathaniel Go, had been named the new David T. K. Wong Fellow, besting dozens of other applicants from around the world. I was so elated by the news that I sought out Nathan, as he prefers to be called, by email, and got this story from him:

DGo

“I was born and grew up in Davao City. This is quite a statement to make nowadays as Davao has suddenly received a lot of attention. But back then, I remember a quiet and laid-back existence, highlighted every summer with the sickly sweet smell of mangoes, as our neighbor who owned a farm, would bring in basket after basket from their harvest. When it rained, water buffaloes would sometimes stop traffic outside our house by bathing in the large potholes filled with mud. The best thing to have come out of such a childhood, of course, is my love of books. Our bookshelf was quite small and included such juvenilia as the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Choose Your Own Adventure was also a hit back then. The Bible was a staple. Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the gold standard. Eventually, once I developed a taste for books I quickly sought new titles from our school library.”

Nathan was a voracious reader, so much so that his school librarian once dared him to bring a truck to borrow the whole collection. He left home at 16 and went to Ateneo de Manila, but moved to the US shortly after to join his siblings in California, where he finally got to study what he had always wanted—literature, linguistics, political science, and screenwriting. He worked briefly as a paralegal before giving in to his muse and studying fiction at the University of Michigan and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Nathan has taught creative writing at the Braille Institute. He will be working on his first novel in Norwich. But as far as he’s come in the world, Nathan still writes about the Philippines and still considers it his home.

“I go back every now and then and I’m always surprised by how fast things are changing, but how—underneath the changes—the fundamental things remain the same,” he says. “These fundamental things are hard to articulate, but I guess that’s where my stories come in. As an author, I straddle an identity and the space between a true insider and outsider of the Philippines. I write about Davao and I write about the small Filipino Chinese community there that I belong to, because that’s the kind of stories I’d never read while growing up.”

Three Filipino fellows in 19 years is surely worth cheering about, but I can’t help thinking—having seen the talent out here—that we (and other homegrown Southeast Asians) could be sending more fictionists to Norwich, and Nathan’s triumph is a welcome reminder of that wonderful possibility. For more information about the David T. K. Wong Fellowship, look here: https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship.

(Pictured on top are the Wong Fellows at a reunion with David T. K. Wong in London, 2008. Image of Nathan Go courtesy of UEA.)

Penman No. 133: Revolution in the Time of Facebook

B75xPtWCIAEFJJ4Penman for Monday, January 26, 2015

 

I’M BACK in the US for a few weeks, to give a series of lectures on Philippine culture and politics as a Pacific Leadership Fellow with the Center on Emerging and Pacific Economies at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) of the University of California, San Diego. The PLF is a post usually reserved for senior government officials and business leaders engaged in economic and political affairs, and it’s the first time they’re bringing over someone from the humanities; some years ago, I was preceded in this fellowship by former Central Bank Governor and NCCA Chairman Jimmy Laya.

I have a major talk coming up this week on the ponderous topic of “Democracy and Cultural Expression: Confronting the Challenge of Modernization in the Philippines,” but last Wednesday, I sat down with a group of graduate students from IR/PS for a more personal chat. The general topic was “The Youth and Social Reform,” and I decided to share some of my experiences as a former student activist in the 1970s and to observe how protest movements and actions have changed since then.

I began by talking about the First Quarter Storm—our own version of Tiananmen, to use a metaphor more familiar to my audience, and the subject of my current research—my arrest and imprisonment in 1973, and the novel that I wrote about that experience. I recalled the many friends and comrades I lost, remarking on the ironic truth that “If I hadn’t been arrested that cold January evening, I probably wouldn’t be here, or be writing novels; I’d very likely have long been dead,” because I would have gone up to the hills and, being totally unprepared for the life of a guerrilla, would have made an easy target for the military. Here’s part of the rest of my short talk:

It would be nice to think that these horrors belong to the distant past, that the world has become more civilized in this new century of Facebook and social media. Indeed, authors like Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) have argued that the world is actually a much safer place today than it was centuries ago, in terms of casualties of war and homicides, among other indices. That may be statistically true, but our street-level perception must surely be different.

It may be bright and sunny here in Southern California, but the world is full of dark and dangerous corners where bombs get strapped to ten-year-old girls who then get blown up in public places. I didn’t even need to tell you that, because it’s all over the evening news, before it all too quickly—and with much relief—gets brushed aside by the latest antics of Kim Kardashian and the latest gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. And why not? It seems grossly unfair in a way to be burdened by the misdeeds of others, by the ideological and ethical quandaries of a world one didn’t create, or even wanted to be a part of.

I’m not suggesting that young people today necessarily have it easier. Each generation has to confront its own demons, and those demons can be as large and as fearsome as you want them to be. You don’t have to live in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in Nigeria with the Boko Haram or in the Philippines with the Abu Sayyaf to know what terror is; you could be living in LA, New York, Columbine, or Ferguson to understand what fear or loss or danger means. In other words, we can never trivialize what other people may be going through.

But in another sense, youth and student activism today is rather different from what it was in my time, in my place. Today, people can pick their causes, instead of taking on the whole world. The starting point is the self, and what the self needs or wants, in a social and cultural climate that’s keenly focused on the here and now, with a very short attention span. Facebook promotes the self; Twitter and Instagram capture the unfolding present. We respond instantly to what we see, and do not necessarily work out of a comprehensive agenda for regime or global change. We don’t seek to save the world, but parts or aspects of it we care strongly about, whether it be whales and redwood trees or indigenous peoples or immigration reform or renewable energy.

In the Philippines, I’ve long maintained that the Communist Party lost much of the ground it had held back in the 1970s and 1980s not so much because of the success of the Philippine military on the battlefield, or even because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but because of the emergence of workable options for idealistic young people desiring social and political change, not necessarily by violent means. With almost 70,000 registered NGOs, Filipinos have a lot of causes to choose from.

For my generation, for all its flaws, we had only Marxism, which gave us a comprehensive world-view. Even though we felt in constant danger, that danger in itself was a comfort, an odd assurance or validation that we were on the right path, doing the right thing. It’s chilling to think that, while they may be very different in many ways, the young men and women joining ISIS today may be moved by a kindred spirit. There’s a frightening coherence and consistency to extremism, an inexorable logic strange to everyone else.

I ultimately opted out of Marxism because while we were convinced that everything was political, I came around to realizing that politics wasn’t everything. Also, as a creative writer, I could no longer abide by the need to observe the Party line.

What have I learned from all that?

First, compromise can be good and necessary. Second, I would not ask others to do what I could not do myself. Third, silence and reflection can result in better outcomes than strident shouting. Fourth, despair or cynicism is easy; hope is more difficult, and therefore the worthier challenge.

Indeed the darker aspects of life have never surprised me. It came as a deep disappointment to find comrades breaking under torture or other forms of duress, or even embracing outright betrayal for comfort and coinage—but that did not surprise me. It may have seemed very strange when I myself took up a job with the government shortly after my release from prison—but that, too, was almost inevitable, since all the old media offices had been shut down and the only real employer in town was the government. When people take the path of least resistance and adjust to new conditions to survive, I can understand that, having done it myself.

What keeps surprising me is courage, hope, goodness, and perseverance, which seem such old-fashioned notions but such necessary imperatives in these times. One no longer has to die for the things one values, but to live for them.

Even though, unlike most of my countrymen, I stopped going to church many years ago in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on many social issues, I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, particularly to the areas ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan. His affection for the poor was palpable, but equally moving was the strength and faith manifested by the poor—one young woman who had lost her right arm in the storm had walked many miles to see him, and what she said with a smile stuck with me: “I am often sad, because I cannot find a job, but life cannot be all sadness all the time.”

For your generation, in your time and in your place, you will have to find your own pathways to social reform, which may have to begin, first of all, with a clarification of your own goals, although a deeper personal transformation will surely take place within the process of social engagement itself. Studying for professional success cannot ever be a bad thing; but it can only be better when all that sharpness of intellect can mean something to the lives of others.