Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Hindsight No. 28: The Queen of Trolls

Hindsight for July 25, 2022

(Photo from philstar.com)

FROM THE street, the building still looked like the bank it had once been, with fluted columns crowned by precast acanthus leaves, but the paint and even the cement cladding had chipped off to reveal the pedestrian concrete underneath. It had been a branch of the old Fidelity Bank & Trust Co., which had gone under in the 1980s after its owner had fled to Southern Spain with P600 million in debts, and the building had served various lessees and uses—once, even, as a shoe emporium on its ground floor, with a restaurant in the mezzanine. But with the building of the LRT, the whole district was literally benighted, occupied by aging tenants with nowhere else to go, pitted with all kinds of booby traps for the unwary.

The former bank’s windows had all been shuttered or painted over, but a steady procession of young people still went in and out of the place through a side door at all hours of the day and night. The locals were made to understand that it had been converted to a call center, although a sign that said “Far Eastern Institute of Homeopathic Medicine” still hung beside the old entrance. Security guards—always two at a time—were posted at the side door, and they ran everyone’s ID through a screening device before letting them in.

The one exception to this routine was the woman they called Ma’am Ventura, a smallish, gray-haired lady in her late sixties who was always accompanied by her driver-bodyguard Bulag, so-called because he never took off his wraparound shades. Ma’am Ventura always wore a dark jacket, matching skirt, white blouse, and flat shoes, like a bank teller—which she had been, in this very same branch, which explained why she had chosen to lease it for her operation. 

She had had the mezzanine converted to an office with a window overlooking the cubicles below, and with a long table around which her floor managers assembled at 10 p.m. to assess the day’s metrics and discuss tomorrow’s messages. The dress code for the trolls below—the “social media specialists”—was strictly informal, the easier for them to vanish into the crowd, but for her managers, Ma’am Ventura insisted on ties, socks, skirts, and heels, so they could understand that they were professionals, as worthy of respect as any college instructor or law clerk. “Transforming society through democratic discourse” was the outfit’s pitch to its recruits.

But tonight, Ma’am Ventura was in a typically foul mood, reviewing some scripts that a new hire had prepared. “Puñeta! I’m not asking you to write an essay that will get a 1.0 from Professor Dadufalza! I want you to say, in 280 characters or less, and in words Bulag will understand, why historians lie! Can someone please show poor Ms.—uhm—Ms. Morales here how she needs to think if she wants to stay in this job?”

Ever eager to please, Nico raised his pencil from his seat on Ma’am Ventura’s right. “They’re people. Just like us. They make mistakes. We don’t even need to prove they’re wrong. We just need to show they could be.”

“Wasn’t the Code of Kalantiaw fake news? Someone just made it up,” came a voice from the far end. Nico winced, knowing it was coming. Angela never missed an opportunity to upstage him at these sessions, flaunting her UP degree—which she knew Ma’am Ventura had as well—like she was standing on a three-foot stool, spreading her arms wide. “Even historians can be fooled.” 

“How many Pinoys out there today even know about the Code of Kalantiaw?” said Bruce, Nico’s ally and Angela’s spurned suitor. “That might be good for TV or Kuya Obet’s column but it’s useless for us.”

“So what can we use? Ms. Morales, any ideas? Redeem yourself.” Ma’am Ventura lit up her first cigarette of the evening; smoking was forbidden on the shop floor but up here they would all reek of it by midnight. This was the part of the work Ma’am Ventura enjoyed the most. The business side of the meeting—impressions, reach, audience growth, engagement rate, etc.—just harvested stats for the client. The Q&A reminded her of the time, after the bank closed down, when she had to take on a teaching job at the college in her provincial hometown. She had begun by teaching Accounting, which she had studied for, but as often happened in these places, she was soon made to teach English and even History. 

At first she tried her best to keep a few chapters ahead of her students, reading the textbooks late at night and figuring out exercises to keep them busy and from asking questions she couldn’t answer. But then the load just became too heavy and she began resorting to what she told herself was just conjecture—that, for example, Josephine Bracken agreed to become Jose Rizal’s wife to escape a scandal in her family—and she soon found it so pleasurable that even her exams posed questions like “What if Japan had won the Second World War? What would you be eating and watching on TV today?” She graded them based on their inventiveness, which she took as another form of intelligence. They began with a set of known facts, and then embellished them, building speculation upon speculation. It was much more fun that just memorizing names and dates. History was a record of settled arguments—until you gave it a kick.

Ms. Morales struggled. “Well—ma’am—can we say that historians lie because—because they don’t really know what happened, so—so they may not even know they’re lying? I mean—they’re not bad people, just—”

“Historians lie because they get paid to lie—by the left-wing universities that buy their books, even by the priests who are always looking for somebody else to blame,” Nico interjected, holding his pencil like he was about to snap it. “We just have to show they’re no saints.”

Angela added, “Let’s dig up some dirt, surely there’s—”

Ma’am Ventura rapped the table. “So what’s the line, boys and girls, what are we going to feed the sharks?” Below them, the monitors from dozens of computer screens glowed like votive candles to a hungry god.

A little hand went up from Ms. Morales. Everyone stopped. A snicker escaped Bruce’s airways. Ms. Morales fidgeted with her Hello Kitty purse. “Kung—kung manghuhula binabayaran, historian pa kaya? I mean… they’re also fortune-tellers, right? Just looking backwards.” She zipped and unzipped her purse. No one spoke until Ma’am Ventura began clapping.

Hija, that’s brilliant! I want you all to write scripts around that punchline! Ms. Morales, I don’t know what you had for dinner, but I’m calling Grab to order it for everyone! Welcome aboard!” Ma’am Ventura blew a cloud of smoke so for a moment no one could see her face, but they could imagine her flashing that sweetest of smiles.

Hindsight No. 6: A Cultural Agenda

Hindsight for Monday, February 21, 2022

(Botong Francisco’s “Pista sa Angono”)

NOTABLY ABSENT from the platforms of nearly all candidates for the presidency is any mention of culture and the arts as a vital element in our quest of nationhood. Everyone has an opinion about the economy, the pandemic, corruption, peace and order, foreign relations, infrastructure, the environment, and countryside development, but you can hardly hear anyone speak—beyond the usual generalizations and platitudes—about what makes us Filipino, what it means to live as an archipelago with over 100 languages, and why and how we can be so similar in some ways and yet so different in others.

These are all matters of culture, which are often given tangible expression in the arts—the songs that make us weep, the paintings that brighten our walls, the stories that make us wonder about what’s important to us, the dances whose gestures take the place of words. At their best, culture and the arts rehumanize us, remind us of our truest, noblest, and also most vulnerable selves.

Unfortunately, we have been brought up to see them as little more than adornments, passing entertainments, intermission numbers to play in between presumably weightier and more consequential concerns. On an official level, culture has been treated as an adjunct of other ventures such as sports and tourism, culminating in beauty contests and street dances. 

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) have had active programs for funding the arts and for sponsoring performances and exhibitions, but despite many previous initiatives, efforts to set up a formal Department of Culture to oversee a broader cultural agenda have failed, again because of the low priority accorded to the sector.

Many studies have shown, however, that the arts—transposed into the creative industries that produce cultural products covering everything from books, movies, and TV shows to music, food, advertising, and advertising—create a large economic footprint.

Citing UNCTAD figures, a report commissioned by the British Council some years ago noted that “Depending on how they are defined, the Creative Industries are estimated to represent anywhere from 3% to 12% of global GDP.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P660 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from less than 5 percent in 2006 to more than 7 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to over 14 percent four years later. Surely these figures have risen much higher since then.

But the most important argument for a clear and strong cultural agenda remains the moral one. Culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

That understanding of who we are and why we think and act the way we do should be the end-goal of our education, grounded in an appreciation of our history. But as recent questions have highlighted, the DepEd’s decision to integrate Philippine history into other areas of learning effectively diluted and diffused its teaching in high school, a critical period in the formation of young minds.

For these reasons, a group of Filipino artists, writers, scholars, and cultural workers have organized the Katipunan sa Kultura at Kasaysayan (KKK) to present the leading presidential candidates with a cultural agenda for the next administration. The key items on that agenda include the promotion of a liberative, creative, and innovative culture; support for the study, appreciation, and critical interpretation of Philippine history; the promotion of cultural and creative industries, and Filipino products; the promotion of democratic education and programs to raise literacy nationwide; and serving the health and welfare interests of cultural workers. (Full disclosure: I work with National Artist Virgilio Almario in this organization.) We presented that agenda to all the leading candidates but heard back from only one, who endorsed it warmly: VP Leni Robredo. We were not surprised.

It’s not surprising, either, that those who understand Filipino culture best are those intent on exploiting its fractures and contradictions. The manipulation of public opinion and political outcomes thrives on knowing how people and groups behave, what emotional levers to pull, and which buzzwords to propagate. 

The confused and fragile state of our culture can be easily seen in how susceptible our people are to fake news. A recent SWS survey showed that 51 percent of Filipinos—every other one of us—find it difficult to tell real news from fake. The traditional sources of what most people have deemed the truth—the government, the Church, the traditional media, the schools, law enforcement, and even scientists—no longer carry the same trustworthiness they used to. Their places have been taken over by social media, cable TV, and micro-networks that can spread disinformation at lightning speed.

When I heard the New Society theme “May Bagong Silang” being played at Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally, I recalled how music, theater, and art were harnessed by the martial-law regime to create spectacle, a key instrument of enthrallment and intimidation, from imperial Rome’s circuses to Nazi Germany’s torchlit parades. That’s culture at the service of dictatorship, belying Leonard Bernstein’s claim that music was one art “incapable of malice.” 

I’ve often noted, in my talks on this topic, how ironic it was that the only presidency that put culture and the arts at the forefront was Marcos Sr.’s, and today even the staunchest of Imelda’s critics will grudgingly acknowledge the value of the CCP. But there was an ulterior agenda to that, which makes it even more urgent to promote a culture that will uphold truth, reason, and justice as a basis for national unity, instead of being used as a glitzy curtain to mask wanton murder and thievery.

Hindsight No. 3: A False Nostalgia

Hindsight for Monday, January 31, 2022

SINCE MY belated debut on Facebook just over a month ago, I seem to have acquired something of a reputation for my posts about the past—not in the scholarly mode of a real historian, which I most certainly am not, but as a collector and keeper of objects that evoke strong associations with times and people long gone. These include century-old fountain pens and typewriters, and even older books and documents steeped in the accumulated oils of the hands that held them.

I’ll admit to having an intense, almost fetishistic, interest in the past—the 1930s are of particular significance to me, because I’m writing a novel set in that period—and I can identify with the romance conjured by postcards of ocean-going liners and of the old Manila Hotel. If you play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on a turntable, you’ll float to the ceiling in my esteem. In my dreams, I fantasize about strolling into the Crystal Arcade one fine day in 1937 and stepping out with a fistful of Parker Vacumatic Senior Maxima pens while towing a cart with all 55 volumes of Blair and Robertson.

But that’s where the nostalgia ends. In many if not most respects—as I’ve told friends who, for example, ask me if UP’s fabled Cadena de Amor ceremony is worth reviving—there’s one place the past deserves to be, which is exactly where it is. Nostalgia is comforting precisely because the past is over, and because we tend to remember just the good parts, and even burnish them to perfection.

But it was never really all that good. Amorsolo’s maidens all seem fresh out of the batis and every Joseon prince’s robes on K-drama seem immaculately pressed even after a swordfight, but the past was literally a filthy place. Queen Elizabeth I was said to take a bath once a month. William Shakespeare and his friends wore those fluffy collars around their necks because that’s all they changed. The lovely ladies of Versailles doused themselves in perfume to quell the odor of their unwashed bodies. The “buntis” window grilles we now admire in old Manila houses were once drenched with dubious liquids being dumped on the street below.

Neither was it so peaceful. Even without counting the devastation of war, the past was fraught with danger, hardship, and unrest. It may have been a grand and glorious time for the rich in their cars and villas, but the masses were suffering in the farms and factories. Power was brazenly exercised, as in the torture and murder of Moises Padilla in 1951. Postwar congressmen carried .45s at their waist into the session hall. As a young police reporter in 1972, I learned where you could find a gun for hire for P500 per target.

We like to think that the past was simple, with fewer choices to be made. But it was never that simple for many without real choices. Poverty was and is never simple, because every morning the mind races to figure out where supper is coming from, and if Nanay can survive on a third of her prescribed dosage or on plain salabat.

All these come to mind when I hear Filipinos today—many of them not even in their 40s—talking about how a return to the “glory days” of Marcosian martial law would set this country back on track and bring us the prosperity, the peace, and the prestige we once enjoyed. I wonder what it is exactly they are “remembering,” and if they understand what putting a Marcos back in Malacañang will mean to this country. This goes beyond the historical amnesia we often hear about these days; the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it “anemoia,” a nostalgia for a time someone has never known, or that never happened.

No, I’m not calling them stupid or wicked by any means. In many cases they’re simply innocent or uninformed, and therefore suggestible. If they feel oppressed by the present and are facing an uncertain future, the past will acquire the appeal of the womb, offering safety and security. The idealization of martial law as a time when streets were wide and clean and when new buildings were rising right and left is a more inviting prospect for those who can’t be bothered with facts and figures about debt-driven growth, cronyism, and horrific abuses under military rule. (For those facts, check out https://newslab.philstar.com/31-years-of-amnesia/golden-era)

That even oldtimers can wax nostalgic over the Marcos years isn’t hard to understand. Like the Germans under Hitler, many if not most Filipinos then never saw a prison camp, never had a son or daughter tortured and salvaged, never had a business taken over by the regime. Those of us who actively resisted dictatorship were in a distinct minority—as we still are today. Complicity has to be endemic for despots to thrive.

But now once again we are called to arms, in a battle for the imagination—a battle of competing narratives and modes of narration. Will the cold, hard truth alone triumph over romantic fantasy, or will we need to be more inventive in our messaging to get through to those unlike us? Instead of just revisiting the past, should we dwell more on a rosy but realizable vision of the future? Instead of staking out May 9 as a referendum on martial law, should we double down on what a presidential election should be—a competition between platforms and qualities of leadership? (And then use the next six years to correct our history textbooks.)

It’s true that we have good reason to long for seemingly lost or threatened graces like statesmanship and civility (not to mention intelligence) in politics, as well as plain good manners and delicadeza. There are good things we can yet recover and revive from better days, with the right leadership and inspiration. But to do that, we have to save the future from those who would drag us back 50 years into a past that was as morally sordid, as violent, and as dispiriting as anything that ever happened in our history. 

Hindsight No. 1: A Time for Telling

Hindsight for Monday, January 17, 2022

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I received the news of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose’s passing two Fridays ago; my recollections of him appeared online later that day. But just as jarring a surprise was a call I later received from Millet Mananquil, my editor in the Lifestyle section, and then from Doreen Yu, our Op-Ed editor, informing me that I had been chosen to take over FSJ’s column-space on this page.

It was a great privilege, of course, and I accepted it gratefully. But it also carried with it an awesome responsibility—to be honest, to be fair, to know enough about an issue to speak with some legitimacy about it, and also to be modest and open-minded enough to remember one’s inescapable fallibility. I don’t think that last one’s going to be a problem, because I’ve made mistakes often enough to know that—well, I make mistakes, some of which may have hurt people badly.

But last Saturday I turned 68, and with that age comes a keener sense of doing right, of accountability for one’s choices and judgments, as well as a greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others, though not of evil or of wrong itself. I intend to maintain those bearings in this new capacity.

Some readers may wonder how a Lifestyle writer like me—obsessed with fountain pens, old books, Broadway showtunes, and digital gadgetry—ends up doing op-ed, which seems a far more serious and consequential calling. A brief self-introduction might be in order.

I dropped out of UP as an engineering freshman in 1971 and, against all odds (not having spent one day in Journalism class, and being all of 18), landed a job as a features writer and general assignments reporter with the Philippines Herald in 1972. My first task was to fill up half the Features page every day—something that schooled me forever on the importance of deadlines and of resourcefulness, because I had to come up with the topics on my own. I moved to Taliba as a suburban correspondent; was arrested for my activism shortly after martial law was declared; spent seven months in prison; and upon my release joined the information staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, where I would work for the next ten years, picking up a diploma in Development Economics along the way.

I returned to school, finished up my academics all the way to a PhD (more for teaching than for my writing), and taught full-time while writing stories and film scripts. In the mid-1990s, thanks to my friend and now fellow-columnist Jarius Bondoc, I was hired as an editorial writer for the newly opened newspaper TODAY. Being busy with other aspects of management, our boss Teddyboy Locsin trusted me to do about three editorials a week, including the newspaper’s very first one. 

I discovered that opinion writing was exhilarating—but also, again, fraught with responsibility. It got to the point that I found myself wishing I could write something less driven by analysis and conscience—small things like my rickety VW Beetle, double-knit pants, and my love of crabs, instead of ponderous topics like prison reform, the defense budget, and Philippines 2000. (I still have 113 editorials that I wrote on my hard drive.) So I asked for—and got—a Lifestyle column called “Barfly” on the back page, which helped me decompress and kept me sane, reminding me that life was much more than politics and that beauty and fun were as important as anything else to happiness.

I’m going to keep that escape valve open—I’ve promised Millet that I’ll continue contributing my “Penman” column every now and then—but I’ll approach this new task with the loftiness of mind that it deserves (although you’ll excuse me if I sometimes prefer to take a more comic tack, as the best criticism is often served up with a smile). 

Unfortunately I’m not a political insider; I don’t make the rounds of kapihans and have become something of a happy recluse over the Covid lockdowns. You’ll see my politics soon enough—unabashedly liberal (with a small L), middle-force, intensely uncomfortable with both Right and Left extremes. (I came out of the Left and worked briefly for the Right as a sometime speechwriter for five Presidents—but not the last two.) I thank God every night for my family’s safety and for our blessings and for the well-being of others, but I’ve had my differences with Church dogma and would rather spend my Sundays reflecting on human frailty and redemption by reading a book or writing a story.

But I do have a deep and abiding love of history, of which I have so much more to learn. This is why I’m keeping FSJ’s “Hindsight” for this column’s title. (When I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies, I dithered between English and History, and chose English only because I was likely to finish it sooner). I agree with Manong Frankie, among many others, that one of the greatest obstacles to our nationhood is the fact that we have a very poor memory—much less an understanding—of our past. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that amnesia now, in the prospect of electing a dictator’s son to the presidency, a full half-century after the father plunged this country into political and moral darkness by declaring martial law to perpetuate himself in power.

There—it’s when vexatious thoughts like that cross my mind that my fingers begin to itch and I want to editorialize, the complete opposite of my impulse as a fictionist to show and not tell. (I often begin my fiction-writing classes by comparing an editorial on, say, justice for the poor with a short story dealing with the same concern, but without once mentioning “justice,” “poverty,” and such abstractions.) But even as I remain a fictionist at heart, there’s a time for telling, for gathering up the threads of an unfolding narrative and declaring, in plain language, what they mean. That’s what I hope to do.

Penman No. 376: The Other Pepe

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Penman for Monday, December 9, 2019

 

THIS COLUMN started out in my mind as an account of a return visit to Dapitan, where my wife Beng and I had first gone eight years ago to pay homage to Jose Rizal, who had lived there in exile for four years between 1892 and 1896, until shortly before his arrest in Europe and his trial and execution in Manila. It was by many accounts a happy and productive interlude, during which he practiced his skills as physician, teacher, poet, and scientist, a period highlighted by his romance with a young woman named Josephine Bracken, whom he would later marry at death’s door.

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Indeed there’s no way you can visit his beachfront estate named Talisay, now a national shrine, without being swept up by the epic drama of Rizal’s last years—a drama wrought not in the theater of armed combat, but in the innermost recesses of his spirit, torn as he was by many loves and longings, successively losing a stillborn son, his freedom, and then his life. Again I looked at his clothes, his letters, and his artworks, trying to see the man beneath the trees, or on the water’s edge pointing something out to Josephine in the gathering dusk. (I keep a plaster bust of Rizal, crafted in 1961 by Anastacio Caedo, in my home office, and often find myself staring at it and asking, “What are you thinking?”)

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We had gone down to Dapitan via Dipolog, where the airport is, to enjoy a weekend with old friends from our time as the elves and acolytes of Dr. Gerry Sicat at the National Economic and Development Authority, back in the 1970s. Our boss at the Economic Information Staff, Frankie Aseniero, and his wife Nanette had graciously invited us to visit them in Dipolog, where Frankie, now retired but not quite, was a gentleman-farmer planting cacao and milling coco sugar and vinegar for the export market. With Beng and me were Medecins Sans Frontieres volunteer-physician Ginny Pineda Garcia and her husband the photographer Oliver Garcia and the poet Fidel Rillo.

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We’re all friends now in our seniorhood, but I have to admit, with some shame, that in our rebellious twenties we gave Frankie a hard time at the office, so let me make up for some of that by talking about his other talents, beyond business and management, as well as his fascinating family history. As it happens, Francisco Aseniero, Jr. is also one of our country’s most celebrated tenors who never fails to make us swoon every time he launches into “Stranger in Paradise” or “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”; he has concertized all over the world and continues to lend his voice to programs benefiting worthy causes.

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How Frankie’s story connects with Rizal and a later phase of our history brings us back to Talisay, where Frankie’s grandfather Jose, then a boy of eleven or twelve, became a student of the other Pepe. So devoted was the boy to his teacher that he accompanied Rizal to Manila, hoping to be educated further in the big city, but events quickly overtook both master and pupil, and the young Jose had to suffer the harrowing experience of witnessing his hero’s execution. He had joined Rizal’s mother and sister on the eve of his death, and had seen and copied Rizal’s farewell poem, according to Frankie’s brother George, a philosopher and historian. Jose Aseniero went on to serve as governor of Zamboanga before the war. At one point he also acquired some of Rizal’s belongings, among which is the four-poster bed that can still be found in the Asenieros’ ancestral home.

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The story is no less interesting on Frankie’s maternal side. His grandfather there was a Swedish engineer named Charles Gustaf Carlson who migrated to the United States in 1895, and shortly after became a Protestant missionary to the Philippines, arriving in 1902 and being counted among the “Thomasites” who taught English to Filipinos. Charles became principal of the Industrial Trade School in Zamboanga, where he married a former student, Eugenia Enriquez. Among their six children was Ingeborg Eughenia, who met and married Francisco Aseniero, Jose’s engineer-son.

But what brought the whole experience together for me was a story that Frankie told us on our last day, as we were winding down, about one of his concerts in a small town in Bulacan. He and some friends had been invited to sing there, and he had obliged as usual. “I was surprised to find that in such a small place, the people thronged to see us, dressed in their Sunday best,” Frankie recalled. “We felt like we owed it to them to sing our hearts out, and we did.” He found himself singing like he would have done in London, Vienna, or New York, and the crowd responded with utmost appreciation as Frankie and his party offered up Broadway and operatic classics. “It was a magical moment, and seeing the people enjoying the music made my hair stand on end!”

How Jose Rizal himself would have loved that, having brought his world-honed talent to Dapitan, enriching and ennobling its soil for other and lesser Pepes like us following in his footsteps.

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Penman No. 373: Another Jewel in the the Shadows

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Penman for Monday, October 28, 2019

 

AT A dinner last week with friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan—an old haunt of mine, having done my master’s there more than thirty years ago—the talk came around to finding and retrieving valuable Filipiniana from the United States and wherever these precious objects—books, paintings, and other artifacts—may have been buried for the past century. I shared the story of how the oldest book in my small antiquarian collection—a book of English essays from 1551, published in London—turned up in Cubao, Quezon City, after having been gifted to its Pinoy owner who was a caregiver in Paris.

That discussion, in turn, reminded me of another interesting message I’d received a month earlier from a reader named Wassily Clavecillas, with whom I’d been exchanging notes about our shared interests (he also supplied me with information about the long-forgotten painter Anselmo Espiritu, whom I wrote about last July). With his permission, I’ll share a slightly edited version of Wassily’s message, which illustrates how literary and historical jewels can still emerge from the shadows:

“Professor, let me tell you about a book entitled Ataque de Li-Ma-Hong a Manila en 1574 by the Spanish writer Juan Caro y Mora, printed in 1898 in Manila. The item was the only Filipiniana object in the lot of Orientalia bequeathed to my aunt by her then employer/patron, who came from an affluent family in California.

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“Encompassing roughly 155 pages, the book is interspersed with artfully crafted vignettes, landscapes, and battle scenery depicting the invasion of Manila by the infamous Chinese pirate Li Ma Hong—an event whose 445th anniversary will fall this November 29. The illustrator was none other than Vicente Mir Rivera, the Filipino Gilded Age artist, a contemporary of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Lorenzo Guerrero, and the brothers Manuel and Anselmo Espiritu. Though not as celebrated as Luna or Hidalgo, Rivera was an important artist and artisan, who also designed with lavish attention to detail the canonical crowns of the Nuestra Senora del Santisimo Rosario, which was executed by the jewelers La Estrella del Norte.

“The illustrations were rendered mostly in watercolor and presumably perished in the fires of war-ravaged Manila in WWII. What we have left, though not originals, are no less beautiful in their form, abounding in visions of verdant Filipino landscapes and seascapes, complemented with renderings of intrepid Spanish soldiers, fierce Chinese corsairs, and valiant Filipino warriors.

“The book was effectively a historical record of Spain’s erstwhile military and martial glories. This is the second edition of Juan Caro y Mora’s tome; a much rarer first edition was never sold but was given to subscribers of the author’s newspaper La Voz Española, which Mora edited.”

Wassily goes on further to say that the book was included in a lot of various Oriental antiques and ephemeras, mostly Japanese netsuke, fine silk scroll paintings, Qing dynasty jade and porcelain figurines, and numerous 19th-century travel books on Asia, which once adorned the richly decorated anterooms of a sprawling California estate.

Bequeathed to his aunt by her employer, for sentimental reasons she never sold this bounty and had the items packed and concealed away in her other home in another state in the US, where the collection remained safe, dormant but not forgotten. Some time ago she decided to go through all the contents again it was then that she found the book.

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Upon further scrutiny,” Wasily reports further, “I was excited to realize that Juan Caro y Mora had inscribed and dedicated the book to his Excellency Governor-General Fermin Jaudenes, the third-to-the-last Spanish-appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. Jaudenes was known for his role in the infamous ‘Mock Battle of Manila,’ where the collapsing Spanish forces orchestrated with the American occupiers the surrender of the City of Manila, to salvage the reputation of Imperial Spain and deny the Filipinos their hard-fought victory.

“One can only speculate if the book was given by the author as a morale booster to the embattled Governor General during what many consider as the death knell of Spain’s empire. The surrender of Manila it heralded the end of 300 years of European rule over the archipelago and marked the beginning of 50 years of Pax Americana.”

Many thanks, Wassily, for your account and perceptive commentary. I’ve never seen or even known about this book myself, of course, but it reinforces my conviction that many more treasures remain hidden out there, in some American or European attic or garage.

Over the past year, I’ve built up a small trove myself of old Filipiniana awaiting repatriation at my daughter’s place in California—multiple copies each of such popular staples as Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, Atlas de Filipinas, and Our Islands and Their People, as well as another first edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn. They may not be quite as exotic as Limahong’s story, or have such a splendorous provenance, but I hope to bring them home soon to spark wonder and delight in more Filipino eyes.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 322: The Fair Filipina

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Penman for Monday, October 8, 2018

 

I’M ALWAYS intrigued—sometimes enthralled, sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed—by the descriptions I come across in my old books of Filipinos seen through the eyes of foreigners. Jose Rizal, of course, had the same interest, and painstakingly annotated Antonio Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, correcting what he thought Morga hadn’t quite understood. (There’s that famous reference to “stinking fish,” which Rizal points out is just bagoong.)

Thousands of books have since been written by visitors to the Philippines since Morga, and overwhelmingly they’ve been authored by white men. As the American period opens, we begin to see accounts such as those written by Mary Fee (A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, 1910). But by and large, we encounter what some might call the colonial male gaze, particularly as applied to Filipino women.

One of the earliest accounts I’ve come across in my library is that of Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose Twenty Years in the Philippines (1853) is a long (and some say fanciful) adventure story, with the author as hero, in the romantic mode of the period. His description of the mestiza is very finely detailed:

“In fine, if Binondoc be exclusively the city of pleasure, luxury, and activity, it is also that of amorous intrigues and gallant adventures. In the evening, Spaniards, English, and French, go to the promenades to ogle the beautiful and facile half-breed women, whose transparent robes reveal their splendid figures. That which distinguishes the female half-breeds (Spanish-Tagals, or Chinese-Tagals) is a singularly intelligent and expressive physiognomy. Their hair, drawn back from the face, and sustained by long golden pins, is of marvellous luxuriance. They wear upon the head a kerchief, transparent like a veil, made of the pine fibre, finer than our finest cambric; the neck is ornamented by a string of large coral beads, fastened by a gold medallion. A transparent chemisette, of the same stuff as the head-dress, descends as far as the waist, covering, but not concealing, a bosom that has never been imprisoned in stays. Below, and two or three inches from the edge of the chemisette, is attached a variously coloured petticoat of very bright hues. Over this garment, a large and costly silk sash closely encircles and shows its outline from the waist to the knee. The small and white feet, always naked, are thrust into embroidered slippers, which cover but the extremities. Nothing can be more charming, coquettish, and fascinating, than this costume, which excites in the highest degree the admiration of strangers. The half-breed and Chinese Tagals know so well the effect it produces on the Europeans, that nothing would induce them to alter it.”

Alfred Marche, whoseVoyage aux Philippines(1887) contains some of the loveliest engravings of local scenes, including one of an unmistakably Filipina beauty, observed (in French) that “The Bella Filipina is one of their favorite tunes, which celebrates the grace, the beauty of Filipina women, señoras  whose type is more or less vague and floating, because there has been a lot of mixing in this corner of the earth.”

Frank G. Carpenter was one of those globetrotters whose journalistic dispatches popularized geography, and he wrote this in his book Through the Philippines and Hawaii (1926) about an evening in a Manila theater, under the heading “The Fair Filipina”:

“All the seats are full, and there are perhaps five hundred dark-skinned people dressed in their best in the boxes and pit. On all sides of us there are Philippine girls and women of every condition and age. Look for an instant at this girl at my side. I pretend to take notes of the play as I write this description, and since it is safe to say that the little lady cannot read my scrawl, she will not object. What a pretty creature she is ! If she were white you would call her a daisy, but as she is brown the name “tiger lily” will fit her much better. She is a plump little thing, with liquid black eyes and a skin as soft and smooth as cream. Her luxuriant black hair is put up in a great knot just back of her crown, and held there by a comb of gold set with rhinestones. Sneak a look out of the tail of your eye at her small brown ears, with the big rings in their lobes, and at the same time notice that gold chain wound round her neck. Maybe you have thought of Filipinas as dirty, ragged, and poor. This one, at least, must be well-to-do, and there are scores just like her all over the house.

“How well the black gauzy dress shows off the beauty of her neck. Her costume consists of a low-cut jacket, with great bell-like elbow sleeves standing out from the arms. Her embroidered undergown also is cut low. About her bare shoulders is pinned a kind of kerchief. I say her shoulders are bare, for the kerchief and jacket are of such sheer stuff that through the meshes you can see the plump, dimpled shoulders and arms. I venture you never saw so many beautiful arms and necks at one time.”

Shall we be enthralled, amused, or annoyed? You be the judge.

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Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

I WAS in Chicago two weeks ago to keynote the 17thBiennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), and it was an opportunity not only to catch up with old friends from my time as a graduate student in the American Midwest but also, and more importantly, to have a sense of where the study of Filipino-American history is going.

With 33 chapters now spanning the US from Hawaii to the East Coast, FANHS has become one of the most visible and important Fil-Am organizations (we typically still hyphenate the term but many Filipino Americans no longer do), devoted to recovering, preserving, and promoting the history of Filipinos and their descendants all over that vast country.

It’s a history that dates back to at least October 1587, when the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza dropped anchor off what’s now known as Morro Bay, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On its crew were several luzones indios; today they would simply be called Filipinos. Some men went onshore, and one Filipino was killed by Indians.

Since then, over three million Filipinos have either made that journey, or were born in America to Filipino parents, and in each one of them is inscribed a history of struggle, adaptation, acceptance, resistance, and all degrees of complex responses in between. And as the Filipino population in America has expanded, so have Filipino communities, such as that seminal one that was started by runaway Filipino sailors in New Orleans in the 1760s, which grew into a “Manila Village” that was sadly wiped out by a hurricane in 1915.

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I’d first heard about the Lousiana Pinoys from Jim and Isabel Kenny who produced a fascinating documentary about them in 1992 titled “Dancing the Shrimp” (a reference to the way Filipinos dried shrimp—and grew the shrimp industry—in Louisiana by stepping or dancing on them to music). In Chicago, I was happy to meet Marina Estrella Espina, a pioneering researcher, librarian, and author whose 1988 book Filipinos in Louisiana (New Orleans: AF LaBorde & Sons, 1988) laid much of the groundwork for further studies as the Kennys’ and that of younger scholars like the poet Randy Gonzales, who also grew up in New Orleans but lived for many years in Dubai. Now in her 80s, Marina excited the audience by announcing that she had found proof that Filipinos had settled in Louisiana even earlier than previously thought, and that she was working on a book chronicling Filipino journeys around the world.

From Alameda, California and local historian and Boholano Bob Balandra came the story of the Bohol Circle, a club formed there in 1936 by 16 Filipino immigrants seeking and providing support for each other in a difficult time. Some later joined the 2ndFilipino Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific. Bob and his compatriots are trying to get that historic club and its clubhouse recognized with an official street name.

Elsewhere, the 300 participants in the FAHNS conference spoke on and listened to such topics as community-university partnerships in Alaska; Filipina-American marriages in the Philippine-American War; getting out the Fil-Am vote; the sakadas of Hawaii; Filipino nurses in Illinois; and decolonization and visual art. Film screenings by the noted filmmaker Nick Deocampo and the “Dreamland” team of Claire Miranda, Katrin Escay, and Moshe Ladanga complemented the lectures. Dr. Dorothy Cordova, one of the society’s founders along with her late husband Fred, graced the event. I was particularly glad to meet old friends from the University of Michigan, Dr. Romy Aquino and his wife Necie, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Princess Emraida Kiram, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

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A special feature was the unveiling of a mural depicting the Louisiana experience, produced by the Durian Collective composed of artists Leonard Aguinaldo, Darby Alcoseba, Manny Garibay, Jun Impas, Otto Neri, Orley Ypon, and Art Zamora, who were assisted by Fil-Am cultural advocate Almi Astudillo-Gilles.

Over more than 30 years, FAHNS has become a true community of shared personal, academic, and cultural interests, and has the potential to become a formidable force in American politics, especially at a time when immigration and human rights have become threatened once again by the new regime. But as with many communities, unity of vision and purpose is always a challenge, which was why this year’s conference focused on the theme of “Community for Cohesion and Collaboration.”

In my keynote, I suggested that “The only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

“Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of ‘a common stake’ an increasingly nebulous one.

“If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.”

And so the conference went, looking back into our past for a glimpse of the future.

Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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