Penman No. 319: A Priceless Literary Treasure

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Penman for Monday, September 17, 2018

 

SINCE I seriously got into antiquarian book collecting not too long ago, I’ve picked up quite a few books that have required the services of a professional book restorer. Surprisingly for most people (but not to bibliophiles who know the history of papermaking and publishing), the books most in need of help often turn out to be the newer ones—and by “newer” I mean a hundred years old or so, books published in the early to mid-1900s.

My oldest book dates back to 1551, an abridged volume in English on the history of institutions. I found it in, of all places, Cubao via an OFW who received it from her employer in Paris and sent it on to her son, who thankfully for me had little use for it and advertised it online. It’s amazingly robust for its age, still tightly bound in its original leather covers, the paper crisp and the printing sharp and clear, annotated here and there by the hand of its various owners down the centuries. (I was tempted, but I didn’t dare inscribe my name on it.)

That’s also true for relatively more recent books from the 1700s and 1800s, some of which look and feel like they rolled off the press yesterday. (I first fell in love with old books as a graduate student of Renaissance drama at the University of Michigan, which kept books from the 1600s on the regular shelves of the library, fascinating me with the stiffness of their paper and the tactile feedback of the letters). I often treat visitors to my office with a whiff of centuries past, ruffling the pages of, say, a Jesuit history from 1706 beneath their noses.

But books from the 1900s and later typically turn yellow and crumbly. The culprit, of course, is the acid that forms in modern, wood-based paper because of a number of both internal and external factors.

This was certainly true of a recent batch of books that I got back from my favorite book restorer (who shall remain unnamed for now lest she be deluged with requests, given that she has a full-time day job to mind). They included no book older than 1853 (a coverless edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines) and 1860 (a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, which I didn’t even realize was a first edition until I noted the bookseller’s penciled notation 20 years after I’d bought it).

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The prize in the pile was a thick clothbound book titled Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, Vol. 1 (Manila: J.S. Agustin & Sons, 1924). The volume is a compilation of smaller books from the 1920s to the 1930s, put together by the legendary professor and anthologist Dean Leopoldo Y. Yabes (1912-1986), who was scarcely in his twenties when he assembled and bound this compendium (signed “Bibliotheque Particuliere de Leopoldo Y. Yabes No. 118).

It’s an outstandingly rare collection, because it contains the only extant copy, as far as we know, of Rodolfo Dato’s landmark Filipino Poetry—the first major collection of Filipino poems in English. In the florid prose typical of the time, Dato prefaces his book by describing it as “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language,” acknowledging that “the full flowering of our poetic art has not yet come, but the fertile field smiles abundant growth and gives promise of a rich and bountiful harvest in a day not far distant.” In various pieces rhymed and metered, writers like Maximo M. Kalaw, Fernando Maramag, Procopio Solidum, and Maria Agoncillo give praise to mayas, moonlight, sampaguitas, and Motherland.

I had long been searching for the Dato book in the usual places online, for naught; but one day, at a committee meeting, my dear friend Jimmy Abad—the poet and anthologist—slipped it over to me, with the note “Priceless!” And indeed it was. Dean Yabes had gifted it to Prof. Abad, who was now passing it on to me in that timeless ritual that exalts and humbles writers and teachers who know exactly what they are receiving.

The compendium also contains an English-German Anthology of Filipino Poets  translated and edited by Pablo Laslo, with a preface by Salvador P. Lopez (Libreria Manila Filatelica, 1934); Dear Devices, Being a First Volume of Familiar Essays in Englishby Certain Filipinos (N. p., 1933); and the 1935 Quill, the Literary Yearbook of the University of Sto. Tomas, edited by Narciso G. Reyes. I’ll say more about these other seminal works later, as they’re truly invaluable glimpses into our earliest impulses as writers in English (and I have to wonder, if this was just Vol. 1, what Vol. 2 was like, if any).

Friendship aside, Jimmy must also have known that I was in a better position to take care of the volume, whose first 80 pages or so—almost the entire Dato book—had been torn, not just detached, from the spine by that infernal chemistry I described earlier. So I sent it to my restorer, who patiently mended each torn and fragile page with Japanese paper. Like my other jewels, this book will find its way to the UP Library at some point, now renewed for another generation of readers and scholars.

 

Penman No. 317: Bringing the Minor Masters Home

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2018

 

I’VE WRITTEN a few pieces recently about my self-assigned mission of finding and bringing home, from various sources overseas, masterpieces of Philippine publishing and literature, from early texts in Spanish to travel books about the Philippines and first editions or first publications of notable literary works.

This week I’m going to extend that to another burgeoning interest of mine—the recovery and repatriation of Filipino art pieces abroad, particularly those of painters who may never have quite achieved the status of a Juan Luna or Fernando Amorsolo, but whose works have their own charms to recommend them.

I may be luckier than most art fanciers in that I happen to know someone who restores the masters, so I get to see more than my fair share of Manansalas, Ocampos, Botongs, Magsaysay-Hos, and Luzes, up close, warts and all. But unless I win the Nobel Prize, I’m never going to own one of these masterworks, so I’ve learned to moderate my ambitions and aim for something both significant and reasonably attainable within a professor’s means.

Those goals crystallized for me when I attended, some months ago, an exhibit titled “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection,” curated by my friend and fellow UP prof Dr. Patrick Flores, who walked me through the show and pointed out how interesting (and not quite so seamless) the transition was between tradition and modernism, sometime in the past midcentury. I could see the tensions between the two, occasionally manifesting in the same artist’s earlier and later work (I don’t recall that he was in this Met exhibit, but Constancio Bernardo, who left the Philippines as an ardent follower of his teacher Amorsolo and came home a committed modernist, much to Amorsolo’s dismay, provides a good example.)

Many of the paintings on exhibit belonged to the school of “Mabini art,” a term often and unfairly used in the pejorative sense, suggesting cheap art done in haste for the tourist market. Indeed there’s a lot of that (and the purposes may not have changed; they’ve just become more pretentious, pitched toward buyers with deeper pockets), but these pioneering Mabini artists were talented in their own right, persistently romantic in a time of gloomy realism.

I was particularly drawn to the work of Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), another student of Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa. I had earlier acquired two small paintings of his from the late 1950s, restful vignettes depicting rice fields and bamboo groves. The Tanza, Cavite native had produced larger seascapes that I admired, but the art market had caught on to him and I couldn’t possibly afford him at auction—at least not here.

I’ve long been convinced that in the United States—languishing in bedrooms, barns, garages, and resale shops—must be scores of Filipino art works brought over by American servicemen and diplomats after World War II and the Vietnam War, surfacing only recently with the passing of these veterans and being disposed of at auction by their heirs.

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A few months ago, a large painting by Custodio, about 2’ x 3’, turned up in, of all places, a Goodwill Store in Spokane, Washington—and I happily snagged that, and rolled it up in a tube for bringing home to Manila when I visited the US last month. Characteristically, Custodio signed it front and back, dated 1966; I’m calling it “Tanza Shore” in honor of his hometown and of its economic and cultural affinity to the water.

It was also on that trip when I secured and repatriated two other smaller but no less interesting pieces. One, shipped out of the East Coast, was an oil painting of a tree at sunset, more than anything an evocation of mood, an impressionist play of mauves, pinks, and oranges. It had been done by Jorge Pineda in 1937 and was still in its presumably original frame; the browned and crusty paper backing was beginning to crumble, but I plan to preserve it that way, as it bears the sticker of its framer: the Henry Schultheis Company, well known framers and gallery owners in New York City (Schultheis died in 1948). Pineda (1879-1946) himself was no mean painter, having won a prize for his work at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and later becoming a teacher to Amorsolo.

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The third piece I brought home—sold by an antiques dealer in Connecticut—caught my eye not just because of its subject but also because of its symbolic use of color. It’s an oil-on-paperboard depiction of Filipino farmers harvesting rice—pretty typical enough, and unremarkable of itself. But this work had been done by one P. T. Paguia in 1945, at the end of the war and in a season of new hope—a patriotic optimism exuded by the red, blue, and white in the dress of the woman bearing a bilao of fruits in the foreground, echoed by the other farmer and the brilliant sky. (Patrick Flores reminded me that Amorsolo had done a similar work in these colors, Palay Maiden, in 1920.) Sadly I could find nothing on P. T. Paguia, except a reference to Pedro T. Paguia being the illustrator of a 1952 book by Ramon Tapales, Singing and Growing for the Primary Grades.

Whether by established or obscure artists, these paintings from decades ago bring me joy and relief from the vexations of our time. Of course I could resell them, but frankly they probably won’t make too much, and just looking at them makes me happier than wondering what they may be worth, which I suppose is what amateur collecting should be about. Call them escapist, but they fortify my spirit by reminding me of the need to fight for beauty and plenitude for all.

 

 

Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 183: Why I Choose to Italicize

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Penman for Monday, January 18, 2016

 

ONE OF the more interesting sidelights in our discussions at the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Workshop in Mindoro a couple of weeks ago had to do with the seemingly small issue of whether or not to italicize Filipino and other non-English words in an English text.

The conventional practice, of course, has been to italicize words like utang na loob, bagoong, kaibigan, and so on. That’s explicitly embodied in editorial stylebooks employed by such publications as The Economist, which hews to the policy that “FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES, such as cabinet (French type), dalits, de rigueur, jihad, glasnost, Hindutva, in camera, intifada, loya jirga, Mitbestimmung, pace, papabile, perestroika, sarariman, Schadenfreude, ujamaa, should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be in roman. For example: ad hocapartheid
 a priori
 a propos
 avant-garde, etc.”

Not everyone, however, feels bound by this rule. Increasingly, over the past couple of decades, writers of color in both the US and the Commonwealth (and, yes, the Philippines) have chosen to resist and reject italicization, believing that doing so represents a form of acquiescence to the dominance of English, and of exoticizing one’s own language, making it appear quainter and therefore more artificially attractive than it should. It’s a political rather than a mere technical decision, a declaration of independence, as it were, from the strictures of style laid down by the old regime.

One of the most quoted sources for this position is the New York-based novelist Daniel Jose Older, who demonstrates in a YouTube video why italicizing Spanish words and phrases in an English text would sound silly in the real, spoken world.

This was brought up again at the recent NVM Gonzalez workshop, where half of the participants were Filipino-Americans who came over from the US. The workshop leader—the very capable fictionist Dr. Evelina Galang, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Miami—discussed the use of Filipino words in a mainly English text, and why glossaries (and, not incidentally, italics) are better dispensed with, leaving the writer with the responsibility of establishing or at least hinting at their meaning in context.

(Evelina has an essay devoted to this concern, and let me quote an eloquent passage from that piece: “As a girl who grew up hanging upside down on easy chairs with a book in her hand, I often read words—English and other words—that I did not understand. I rarely stopped to define them. Sometimes I wrote them down and looked them up later. (I was a geek, after all.) But more often than not, having stepped into a fiction John Gardner called ‘that vivid and continuous dream,’ and driven to know what happened next, I kept reading. Like Angel, I let the words wash right over me, I watched them working next to other words. I listened to them. I tasted them and felt the weight of them in my mouth. I imagined them surrounded by nothing at all. I followed them as they floated down the page, bumping into semicolons, swimming through parentheses, slapping up against em-dashes, evading italics, and falling right off the page. I read the words in context and, right or wrong, I gave the words their meaning.”

I agree perfectly with Evelina as far as contextualization goes. I’ve always taken it as a technical challenge to show what Filipino words like bucayo and manananggal mean without defining them in that direct but clumsy way that glossaries or footnotes provide. Importantly, Evelina went on to emphasize that these choices are, ultimately, for each author to make for his or her own good reasons, and that those choices deserve to be respected by other writers and readers.

As it happens, I’m one of the holdouts in the matter of italicization, and I premise my position on both technical and political grounds. First, in terms of readability, italics may seem intrusive—and if there’s too many of them in the text, that will certainly be true—but my pet theory is that it’s actually easier on the reader’s eye and mind to spot a non-English word coming up in the text and to prepare for it, rather than be surprised by something “foreign”, even if it’s one of our own. (Just imagine the confusion that words like “ate” (older sister), “pain” (bait), and “noon” (then) would make.) Personally, I don’t want my readers—especially in my fiction—stopping to wonder what specific words mean, which is why the older I get, the simpler my vocabulary becomes; I want the reader to grasp whole sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, and not to trip on individual words.

Politically, when I italicize Filipino words in an English text, I also mean to say that these words are special to me and to my culture, and I don’t want them to be diluted by a dominant foreign language, which is English. As far as I’m concerned, the whole book in English is already a translation of Filipino experience; most of the dialogue there was never spoken in English, in the first place.

I suppose it’s different when you’re writing in English as a minority in America, and you feel bound (as I would, in that situation) to claim and establish a parity between your mother tongue and English. And let’s face it—for many hyphenated minorities, especially second- and third-generation writers, English has become their mother tongue. When they write fiction about themselves, their characters will speak in English, and the odd Filipino word will be just that.

Indeed the issue goes beyond italicization; the question of when and how to use Filipino or other non-English words in an English text should be seriously pondered by every Filipino or Filipino-American (and Filipino-Canadian, etc.) writing in English, mindful that there are words and concepts in Filipino without exact translations in English, which might be better used as is. (And as Salman Rushdie once put it, “To unlock a language, look at its untranslatable words.”) However, one also needs to resist the urge to exoticize one’s writing by peppering it needlessly with native words and expressions just to add more “local color,” especially when ready translations are available.

I’ll go at greater length into matters of translation in another column-piece, but I’ll rest my case on this issue of italics for now, hoping that it adds a bit more asim to the global sinigang of language.