Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

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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.

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Penman No. 209: Coming: An American Museum of Philippine Art

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Penman for Monday, July 25, 2016

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be winging home with my wife Beng from California where we’ve spent the past two weeks engaged in a pioneering project that should bring the best of Philippine art to a broader American audience, if ongoing plans work out over the next few years.

Have you heard of the American Museum of Philippine Art? Probably not, since it’s still something of a pipe dream, but some people on both sides of the Pacific are blowing very hard on their pipes to make it happen. Those people include businessman Raffy Benitez, president of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Arts Center, and University of the Philippines professor and art expert Dr. Reuben Cañete, who developed the idea late last year after Erehwon’s successful involvement in a binational mural project at Chicago’s Field Museum sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through Dr. Almira Astudillo-Gilles, a Chicago based Fil-Am writer and cultural advocate.

I reported on that project in this column last November 25, noting the warm response received by the participating Filipino and Filipino-American artists for their works—two murals, one at Erehwon and another at the Field—depicting the flows of Philippine culture and history from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

That positive experience encouraged Raffy and Reuben to conceive of a bigger and more enduring project that would bring Philippine art even closer to Americans—not just the huge and broadly dispersed Filipino community in the US, but the American public at large. Raffy and Reuben noted that the Mexicans and the Chinese, among other immigrant groups in America, both had their art museums, but that Filipinos—among the largest and fastest-growing minorities in America—did not.

Reuben recalled the long tradition of Filipino artists going over to the US to study and to work—such as Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, and Alfonso de Ossorio, among others—and observed that while strong cultural ties remained between the two countries, the connection was overwhelmingly one-way, with Philippine art (and music and literature, for that matter) being little known and appreciated in the US.

“In this age of globalization, art is now a global commodity that is exhibited and collected by various international venues, such as Art Basel Miami. Philippine Art, both in its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, must now be aggressively promoted in the United States, which is a major area of collection and promotion of global art,” Dr. Cañete would say in a concept paper on AMPA.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, a prizewinning Fil-Am sculptor and Director of the Slocumb Galleries at East Tennessee State University, agrees, writing that “There is a rich and dynamic art practice by Filipino-Americans in the US. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the visibility and recognition with regards to the idea and form of ‘Philippine Art’.

“The Philippines is the second highest Asian country whose citizens migrate to the US. The Filipinos have a long, complex history of immigration and residency in America, yet ‘Philippine Art’ is not as accessible nor recognizable in popular culture nor in the global art world. This statement does not claim that there is lack of talent nor creativity; on the contrary, there are thriving communities of artists, art groups and cultural workers who are making a difference in their respective locales, as well as receiving recognitions for their work in the field of arts.”

To take the first steps toward turning vision into reality, Raffy, Reuben, Beng, and I flew to LA to meet up with some prominent Filipino-American community leaders and artists to set up a foundation that would start the spadework on the museum. The American Museum of Philippine Art Foundation, Inc. (AMPAFI) was formally launched July 12 at the Holiday Inn in Diamond Bar, California, in a day-long meeting attended by a couple of dozen participants from all over the US.

Raffy Benitez will serve as chairman and president, and Reuben and I are joining him on the board, but we know that this project can’t be run from Manila, so the directors will also include art curator Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, physician Jose Botor Regullano, and engineer Ricardo Real Almonte. The officers include Fil-Am standouts Rafael Maniago, Art Zamora, Sal Budz Floriano, Rosie Vinluan Muñoz, Connie Buenaventura, Daniel Gutierrez Bassig, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Halili, Jess Española, Jun Sison, Ninette Tenza Umali, Ernan Ebreo, and Bernadette Escalona-Cooper. During the launch, a group of Fil-Am Artists headed by Paeng Maniago also rolled out a mural that they had executed to celebrate the occasion.

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We all realize that this project will take many years, enormous resources, and tremendous effort and optimism to realize. (Being Filipinos, we expect a lot of naysaying, and I’ve been Raffy’s chief buzzkiller whenever I think someone needs to pull his feet back to earth, but I have to admire the man’s guts and what he’s done at Erehwon, which you can preview here: http://erehwonartfoundation.org.) The museum as Raffy and Reuben envisage it is a mini-CCP, with enough spaces for exhibitions and performances (and even classes in Pinoy cooking), and the renowned architect Conrado Onglao was motivated and generous enough to contribute a prospective design for the building. That may be years down the road, but in the meanwhile, AMPAFI is taking early and doable steps toward building a countrywide arts community—a virtual museum, as it were—in cooperation with other groups such as Bernadette Escalona-Cooper’s Silicon Valley-based Global Artists’ Creative Collaboration for Empowerment (GACCE), whose leaders also attended the launch.

Karlota reports that “Our first two official projects are: ‘Nandito N Ako’ by 11 emerging Filipinx artists from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and possible community mural headed by NY-based artist Art Zamora with the Phil-Am organization and ETSU organized by Slocumb Galleries in the Northeast. This will be early October 2016 in time for Filipino Heritage Month. Also on the same month on the West Coast is the proposed Indie Film Showing in LA by special committee on fundraising head Ernan Ebreo. Both are curated programming for awareness campaign and fundraising efforts.”

(Wait a minute, did I read “Filipinx?” Indeed I did—and this trip was the first time I encountered the term myself, which seems to be gaining currency among young Fil-Ams, who define “Filipinx”—which I’ve heard pronounced as “Filipinics”—as an effort “to make the community more inclusive—we changed the O in ‘Filipino’ to an X to remain gender-neutral and recognize all genders that exist in the Filipinx community. There’s apparently been a lot of debate on this issue, which we’ll deal with some other time.)

The AMPA website is up at http://www.ampafi.org. Contributions and donations are, of course, very welcome, but more than that, we need goodwill, prayers, and strength of spirit to see this vision through. Mabuhay at salamat sa lahat!

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Penman No. 164: Art Meets Anthropology

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Penman for Monday, August 31, 2015

FACTOR 1: For the past 45 years, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been giving out grants to meritorious individuals and organizations for a variety of causes that fall within its stated mission of supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” In the US, the individual MacArthur fellowships are known as the “genius grants.”

Factor 2: Chicago also happens to be the home of the 120-year-old Field Museum of Natural History, a venerable institution housing over 20 million specimens from all around the world—including an impressive collection of 10,000 Philippine artifacts, many gathered from American expeditions to the Philippines in the early 1900s, very few of which ever go on display.

Factor 3: Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles—a Filipino-American social scientist and prizewinning writer who now lives in the Chicago area—put the MacArthur Foundation, the Field Museum, and the Philippines together in her head and hit upon the idea of seeking a grant from the foundation to fund a project that would help showcase the museum’s priceless Philippine collections before a larger global audience.

That initiative soon materialized in the form of the Art & Anthropology Project, conceived by Almi Gilles, sponsored by the two institutions, and supported in the Philippines by the Erehwon Arts Foundation. It involves bringing together five Filipino and five Filipino-American artists to work collaboratively on two huge paintings (mural-size at 7 by 28 feet, but technically not murals or wall paintings as they are free standing, on canvas)—one in the Philippines and one in Chicago—over three months from mid-August to early November.

I had a chance to mingle with these artists last week, twice—the first time, on a weekend run to Baguio, during which they visited National Artist Bencab at his museum, and then at the Quezon City domicile of the Erehwon Arts Foundation (which, aside from paintings, also hosts an orchestra and a dance studio). It was good to see Almi again, whom I’d first met in Michigan about 30 years ago when she was doing her graduate work in East Lansing and I (and her brother Jun) in Ann Arbor. I introduced Almi to my wife Beng, the vice-chair and a trustee of the Erehwon Arts Foundation, and along with Erehwon heads Raffy Benitez and Boysie Villavicencio, Almi and Beng helped crystallize the Philippine phase of the project.

The ten chosen artists went through a rigorous and juried application process on both sides of the Pacific. No one—not even established and well-known artists—got a free pass. This opened the door to young, vibrant talents—most of them under 40—representing a range of artistic styles and persuasions, from the realist to the abstract. While the Fil-Am artists come from around the Midwest, the Filipinos range in their origins from Baguio and Manila to Cebu and Cotabato.This August, the five Fil-Am artists arrived in Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts at the Erehwon Center; this October, the five Pinoys will fly to Chicago to do the same. The finished paintings will be on exhibit in their respective venues, and will feature artifacts the artists have chosen from the Field collections, recontextualized in the present. This way, the project’s as much a celebration of our continuing ties as global Filipinos—arguably one of our richest cultural resources—as it is of our pre-Hispanic wealth.

The artists involved are among the best of their generation. Herewith, excerpts from their profiles:

Leonardo Aguinaldo was born in Baguio City in 1967, and currently lives in La Trinidad, Benguet. Aguinaldo’s style is highly illustrational and graphic, derived from his experiences as a printmaker. He utilizes the rubbercut and acrylic paint to achieve highly dense and detailed designs derived from his traditional Cordillera background.

Jennifer Buckler was born in Dover, Ohio in 1986. She received her BA in Art from The Ohio State University in 2009 and her MA in Art Therapy Counseling from Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon in 2011. In 2013, Buckler joined a Chicago-based Filipino artists’ collective known as the Escolta St. Snatchers Social Club, where she has explored her Filipino roots more deeply.

Elisa Racelis Boughner was born in the United States and raised in Mexico, and studied art in America and Europe. Her work reflects the influence of each of these cultures, and of a range of painting styles from Impressionist and German Expressionist to Cubist. The result is a unique and highly personal style that brings extraordinary vibrance to often ordinary subjects.

Cesar Conde is a contemporary painter who employs Old World techniques on modern materials to paint realistic portraits. He is a Filipino-American artist based in Chicago who studied with master painters in Italy and France. He counts Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Goya among his influences.

Florentino Impas, Jr. was born in 1970 in Danao City, Cebu, ands graduated from the Surigao del Norte School of Arts & Trade. A consistent competition finalist and winner and a member of the Portrait Society of America, Jun was a former president of Cebu Artists Inc. (CAI) as well as a former president of the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines.

Joel Javier earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing at Murray State University in 1999, then pursued a career in studio art which led to a career in art education, receiving an MA in Art Education in 2011 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Joel is currently the Education Manager at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

Emmanuel Garibay was born in 1962 in Kidapawan, Cotabato. With degrees in sociology, fine arts, and divinity, the many-talented Manny has mounted at least 19 solo exhibitions, and is well known for his expressionist figurative style as for the content of many of his works, which often express a keen social and political consciousness.

Trisha Oralie Martin is an interdisciplinary book and paper artist currently living, working, and teaching in Chicago. Trisha envisions her art as a catalyst that can convey important social issues across diverse communities. Inspired by her cultural heritage, her highly patterned works are pulped and printed with native Filipino designs.

Jason Moss was born in 1976 in Manila. He finished a BFA, Major in Advertising, at the University of Santo Tomas in 1997. An award-winning book illustrator, animator, and filmmaker, Jason is also a painter who has mounted 28 solo exhibitions since 1993. Jason’s work blends grotesquerie—his manifest suspicion that our world is beset by demons of one kind or other, some of them within the self.

Othoniel Neri was born in 1985 in Manila, and began drawing at a very young age. In 2003 he studied Fine Arts by mail through the International Correspondence School, and received several awards in international and local competitions. Being a figurative and portrait artist, Otho paints with a very sharp eye and a flair for detail, employing a palette of explosive colors.

The project has been a rich learning experience for the artists on both sides, so far, in terms of exchanging viewpoints, experiences, and techniques. Beng and I look forward to seeing what they’ll do in Chicago for the project’s US phase—whatever its content, surely a triumph of cultural kinship across the miles and the millennia.

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Penman No. 26: New Novelist in Town

OFW AwardPenman for Monday, Dec. 23, 2012

IT’S ALWAYS a pleasure to welcome a new novelist into our ranks, and today will be one of those happy days when we acknowledge the arrival—literally and figuratively—of a new talent in our midst, Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, or just Almi to her friends.

Almi flew in from Chicago as one of 29 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas, which were given out last December 5 by President Aquino at Malacañang. I had met her at the ICOPHIL conference in Michigan last September, although she had introduced herself to me by email earlier, as a fellow Filipino eager to make contact with other writers in the US and the Philippines.

Last December 9, Almi also launched her first novel, The Fires Beneath: Tales of Gold (San Francisco: Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2012), at the Ayala Museum. The novel deals with how a poor man’s discovery of ancient gold in the Philippine South changes him, his family, and his community. I haven’t finished reading the book, but I’ve been much impressed by her sharpness of eye and precision of language.

Writing about Quiapo and Binondo, for example, Gilles observes that “In Quiapo, the Golden Mosque is flanked by the Church of the Black Nazarene while the Binondo Chinese worship at Our Lady of China. On the sidewalks surrounding both places, vendors set up storefronts assembled from canvas, corrugated metal, or pieces of plywood, displaying items promising an easier spiritual journey. ‘Bypass purgatory,’ the vendors hawk. ‘Take one step closer to paradise… at a fraction of retail.’ Most believe, all pray. Both acts of nature and man cause great suffering. Metropolitan Manila lies beneath sea level and all it takes is one bad rainy season to show the inadequacy of the government’s flood control system. But the people take this all in stride. They buy both prayer beads and rubber boots.”

Since she was busy enjoying a well-deserved Christmas break with her family in the Philippines, I asked Almi to respond to a few questions I sent her by email, to map out the unlikely course she took to becoming a novelist from a professional background in the social sciences.

BD: Tell me something about yourself and your background.

AAG: I spent a few childhood years in Frankfurt, Germany where my father was assigned by the World Bank. Hence, English was the first language I learned formally. I was in premed psychology at UP Diliman and switched to AB psychology in my third year because I never intended to be a doctor and the subjects were getting harder. I graduated cum laude, and went to work for Sycip, Gorres, and Velayo (management consulting). After two years, I left for graduate school in the US, where I eventually finished a doctorate in social science, a master’s in political science, and a master’s in labor and industrial relations, all from Michigan State U. I also met my husband there, a doctoral student in economics, and got married there, on campus. My husband works in the telecommunications industry. I have a 22-year-old-son who works for Facebook and a 17-year-old daughter who’s starting college next year. I have a brother in Vancouver, Canada, and a brother and sister in the Philippines. My parents live in Manila.

BD: What started you writing?

AAG: I started writing poetry when I was about seven years old, and as I grew older I also started writing essays which were often published in the school newspaper. After graduate school, I joined the management faculty at De Paul University as adjunct professor, and taught at other area universities as well. At the same time, I had young children and my husband was traveling frequently. None of my childcare arrangements were satisfactory. After I grew dizzy and almost fainted in one of my classes (a night class for graduate MBAs), I went to see a doctor the next day and was diagnosed with hypertension, which apparently had been going on for quite a while. I then decided to quit teaching (I was teaching at campuses all over the Chicago area and would often get home around 11 at night) and try my hand at writing. My children’s book, Willie Wins, was published soon after, and I was hooked on writing. I started out writing for children since I had young ones of my own, and have published poetry, essays, short stories (one of which won a national award in the US), and plays for community theater. Now that my children are older, I thought I’d try something more adult, hence this novel.

BD: Where did the idea for this novel come from?

AAG: My friend’s sister was curator of the gold exhibit at the Ayala Museum, and she suggested I write a novel based on the discovery of the Surigao treasures. It took me about three years to finish, but I was working on other projects as well. I was fortunate that a video series of this story already existed, and I used that as reference.

I wanted the novel to reflect the tug between secularism and religiosity, and tried to delineate this struggle through my main characters (the gold discoverer and his family). Since I consider myself as a writer of the diaspora, I was careful to maintain a high level of authenticity about the Filipino experience (especially since the setting is the Philippines), while trying to appeal to American readers as well. Several chapters were workshopped at a master novel writing class led by a Northwestern University professor, and they were all white (no writer of color). While they liked the voice and style, they defined it as magical realism—a sad commentary on their knowledge of other cultures since the characters, setting, scenes were typical of a Filipino lifestyle. Some were also uncomfortable with my sentence construction (I tried to mimic the rhythms of Tagalog) but generally they liked the novel very much. In a writing workshop organization to which I belong, I’m the only Filipino writer (of English), and the only Filipino writer I know of actively publishing in the Midwest, so I feel I have to work extra hard to publicize my work and get the American readership to be more open to Filipino writing in English.

BD: What did your presidential award mean to you, and where do you go from here?

AAG: I write full time, but I guess you can say that days are filled with a lot of community organizing in addition to my writing projects. I’m very active in the Filipino American community in Chicago, and have a good working relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History. I try to promote Filipino culture whenever I can and am also invited by many schools to talk to students about multicultural writing. I’ve spoken at institutions and conferences all throughout the US, most notably at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

I’m humbled by the achievements of all the awardees—they are really exceptional people who have given so much back to the Philippines. I’m grateful that my writing has been recognized (Willie Wins is the most widely circulated Filipino American children’s book in the US, available in many schools and libraries, and is on the reading list of most multicultural publications), but I feel that a presidential awardee is obligated to continue to serve. My other passion is conservation and the environment (as president of the UP alumni group in Chicago, we raised funds for a marine study in UP Visayas), and I’m always trying to push both literacy and conservation. I’m encouraged by the feedback I get about my efforts because many have told me that I have motivated them to either write or start doing something to save the environment. I try to use the award to open doors so that I might do more, and the awards have been very effective in helping me to connect to others whom I might recruit for my cause.

AND SPEAKING of new novels, I’m awaiting an early copy of Marivi Soliven Blanco’s The Mango Bride, a comic romp through contemporary Filipino relationships, which will be released by Penguin in the US this coming April. Like Almi, the San Diego-based Marivi started out writing stories for children. Their examples should encourage more Filipinos, especially women, to make their mark in global publishing.