Penman No. 141: War and Remembrance

IMG_7163Penman for Monday, March 23, 2015

 

A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Ayala Museum with some good friends visiting briefly from the United States—the historian and professor Sharon Delmendo and her mother Judy, and the retired soldier, consul, and West Point lecturer Sonny Busa.

Both Sharon and Sonny were in town to do research—Sharon on President Quezon and the Manilaners, the Jewish refugees whom Quezon took in just before the War, and the Visayas-born Sonny on the guerrilla movement, for which he’s helping to seek more recognition in the US, especially those who may have fallen through the cracks of the American legal system. (Even Judy Delmendo proved to be a revelation, as I Iearned the story of how, as an idealistic young teacher, Judy signed up for the Peace Corps as soon as she heard JFK’s clarion call about doing something for one’s country. She was among the very first Peace Corps volunteers to ship out, and landed in Masbate, where she ended up marrying a handsome Filipino named Rene.)

Not surprisingly, history—both past and current—dominated our discussion. I’m not a historian myself, but have a keen interest in the subject, and might even have taken it up as my profession. (There was this fork in the road, more than 30 years ago, when I was returning to college from a long hiatus and was choosing between English and History as my major; pressed for time, I chose the path of less resistance.)

It must have been all those movies I saw and comic books I read as a kid, but I’ve been especially and inordinately fascinated by war and conflict—despite the fact, to which my friends will hopefully attest, that I’m a most unwarlike person, and have never fired a gun in all my 61 years. (In her college years, our daughter Demi was a proud member of UP’s rifle and pistol team.) I may be enthralled by the engineering that goes into a piece of weaponry, and I’m easily impressed and moved by tales of courage and heroism in battle, but I never for a minute forget that war is an ugly business, brutal and brutalizing, inevitably attended by grief and sorrow, and by the all-too-human impulse to wage even more war.

Sharon and Sonny had come to the Ayala Museum that morning not just to see me but also to take part in a conference on World War II, coinciding with an exhibit at the museum. I hadn’t known about the conference and couldn’t stay on for the rest of the day, but I did stay long enough to catch the first event, which was an exhibit on wartime Manila, particularly the uniforms worn by military personnel on both sides. The reason for this curious but interesting angle became apparent when we were soon surrounded by people dressed up as Japanese and American officers and soldiers, and also as nurses, guerrillas, and even a Makapili informer.

I turned around to see a familiar face, albeit in a totally unfamiliar context: that of the prizewinning sculptor Toym Imao, son of the late National Artist Abdulmari Imao and an accomplished artist in his own right. I’d last met Toym (so named because of the award his dad received) when he was a speaker at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation last year; he had been a Fulbright scholar in Maryland, honing his skills there. But now Toym the sculptor had transformed into Toym the tank commander, a figure right out of Fury.

“We started out as an Airsoft group,” Toym told me, “but we soon realized that it would be more interesting if we went for historical re-enactments using historically correct uniforms and costumes.” Thus was born the Philippine Living History Society, which had put up that morning’s special display. The society, which now has nearly a hundred members, counts HR managers, call center agents, and media professionals among others in its ranks; older persons, women, and children are also part of the group, which has staged re-enactments of famous battles or encounters (a mere costume parade, I learned, is simply an “impression”; members also have a term, “farb,” for historically inaccurate gear). Some of their uniforms and equipment are genuine artifacts—preserved, rediscovered and restored, or sourced from eBay; others are reproductions, but accurate down to the last button.

Despite their strong military bent, the society’s members are no warmongers. “We just want Filipinos to appreciate history better, and this is a good way of getting their attention,” Toym explained. They certainly got ours—even Sonny Busa, probably the only real soldier in the room (he had served with the US Army’s Special Forces before joining the diplomatic service), was caught up in the drama.

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Speaking of war and remembrance, I’d like to note the recent completion and turnover to the Philippine National Police Academy of a huge and breathtaking mural by the Erehwon Art Collective, a division of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Art World Corporation. We don’t have enough military art in this country, and quite apart from its powerful emotional appeal, this mural will be an important contribution to that genre. Let me draw on the description provided by Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez:

“Tagaligtas: Heroic 44 is a military mural that realistically depicts each and every member of the SAF 44 in their combat gear and uniform, portrayed as they are about to go into combat in realistic formations and stances. They gaze at the viewer with pride and fondness as comrades, sons, brothers, and fathers who have passed on into history. Portrayed across 182 square feet of canvas that measures 7 feet tall by 26 feet long, the SAF 44 are depicted in their various unit configurations, with the commanding officers and senior inspectors in front, middle ranking patrolmen in the middle, and junior-ranking patrolmen at the rear.”

Incredibly, the mural was completed in just three weeks by a talented and tireless team that included Grandier Gil Bella (head artist), Jerico de Leon, Neil Doloricon, Camille Dela Rosa; Lourdes Inosanto, Jonathan Joven, Othoniel Neri (assistant head artist), Emmanuel Nim, and Dario Noche (head researcher and photodocumentor); and Eghai Roxas. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) provided financial support for the project, while PSSupt Gilbert D.C. Cruz of the PNP-NCR Southern Police District provided technical advice. The mural design was conceptualized by Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete.

So whether through the theater of costumery or the quieter grandeur of a mural, the warrior lives on in our common memory.

Penman No. 41: Writing Historical Fiction

Deed of SalePenman for Monday, April 8, 2013

AS I write this, we’re up in Baguio with this year’s crop of 12 fellows attending the 52nd UP National Writers Workshop, and we’re discussing the works-in-progress presented by the fellows, who are all practicing and accomplished creative writers with at least one published book to their name. We’re calling them mid-career writers, but their ages range widely from the mid-20s to seniorhood.

In our youth-oriented culture, we often forget how maturity can have its advantages, and how the literary imagination can improve with age. I was reminded of this when we took up the works of two of this year’s older fellows, Thomas David Chavez and Anna Marie Harper, both of whom happened to be working on historical novels.

Writing the novel is difficult enough, but the writing of historical fiction poses some special challenges, which probably explains why not too many writers essay the medium.

History deals with the past, but whenever we present it today—whether as fact or fiction—it inevitably also deals with the present, and by projection, with the future. In other words, the past is truly important to us—beyond its curiosity value—insofar as it informs the present, and provides clues as to what the future might be.

The “historical” part of the term “historical fiction” apparently requires close attention to factual detail, which means exhaustive research of an almost academic nature, to make certain that one is taking off from solid ground. Just how solid that ground is will of course be debatable and may even be the subject of the fiction itself—“What really happened?”—but no matter what departures from fact are taken, a certain familiarity with the past (perhaps a fictive or imagined familiarity) is assumed.

Indeed the basic proposition of historical fiction can be summed up thus: “We think we know the past, but we don’t.” A more severe formulation might be: “We don’t know the past at all.”

The fictionist’s conceit lies in his or her suggestion that fiction, rather than even more thorough or more scholarly research, can remedy this lack of understanding. It’s the same conceit we carry over to contemporary fiction, which is our response, our proposed alternative, to CNN, to the White House or the Malacañang Press Secretary, to the Departments of History and Political Science. The fictionist’s reason for being draws from one of my favorite quotations, this one from Mark Twain, a man who knew how to spin a fanciful yarn while being engaged in the most significant political debates of his time. In so many words, Twain said: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

The sense-making of fiction relies, in turn, on dramatic plausibility—or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, on probability and necessity, in the logic of the human heart and mind. (To Aristotle, tragedy—which you can take to be literature itself—was superior to history, because history merely dealt with what happened, while tragedy concerned itself with what could happen). What makes fiction interesting is that this logic of the human heart and mind can often be bewilderingly illogical, although it will, at some point, acquire a frightening inevitability.  I’ve often told my students that characters become truly interesting if and when they go out of character, and these turning points are what we wait for, both in history and fiction.

It is, therefore, the burden of the historical fictionist to offer more than both ordinary historians and ordinary fictionists can offer. The past has to be more than setting or décor, the pitfall of bad historical fiction; and the fiction will require more than an embellishment of known fact. Historical fiction is not fictionalized history; it is not creative nonfiction. It is a fictionist’s creative use of the past as material with which to make sense of the present, of how we came to be what we are, of how we will likely be tomorrow.

Dave Chavez’s novel is set in the American Occupation, told from the point of view of the Filipino butler and cook of an American officer who heads the health service in a time of war and cholera. It goes a bit farther back to 1874, when a boatload of Japanese lepers arrives in Manila Bay from Nagsaki under the command of a Captain Kurosawa:

“Only in the last minute was Kurosawa informed of the nature of his gruesome mission, although two weeks before setting sail, he was told to recruit an able-bodied crew of 14 ocean-tested men, then to stock up on supplies treble that number, and finally, to organize a guild of petty merchants who could assemble on such short notice a credible cargo for trade in Manila. Given the time constraint, the captain orchestrated a passable, if rough and ready nine tons of merchandise. Kurosawa inspected and oversaw for himself the weighing of the bales of Kyushu silk, wax-sealed jars of Shikoku soy sauce and crates of Western-style gleaming steel cutlery from the foundries of Fukuoka.

“Of course, there were special items that were not for sale or barter, but were primed spotless and sheening just the same under orders of the Overlord. In there were intricately- packaged gifts of dolls, fans of gilt brocade paper, ukiyo-e scrolls, pictures of the fleeting world depicting the pillow tales of cloistered Genroku noblewomen, some fancy paper from the presses of Nagoya, and finely-wrought cotton yukatas from the prefecture of Nara. These were presents for Manila’s notables, including Governor-General José Malacampo Monje, the Spanish and mestizo nobles of Intramuros and Ermita, the regidor of the port, and finally the Archbishop of Manila, Gregorio Melitón Martinez Santa Cruz.”

Bambi Harper’s second novel will be a prequel to her first one, Agueda, published last year. While Agueda charted a woman’s and her society’s progress from the late 19th to the early 20th century, The Shadow on the Sundials starts with the British Occupation of 1762, and introduces a colorful cast of characters that includes a visionary beata, a dashing Spanish rake, a native servant girl, and a dwarf. Harper draws the curtains on our bygone days thus:

“The entire upper floor of the house that overlooked the narrow provincial road formed a giant screen with its window panes of capiz shells, while below the sills were ventanillas where as a child Tita dangled her chubby legs through the spaces between the carved balusters. The house stood on the corner beside an old stone bridge and massive doors opened into a saguan where granite steps led to the caida, an anti-sala overlooking a garden of fruit trees. The lower classes waited here to be summoned into the august presence of the owner—even poor relations of Doña Titik unless they were in the kitchen eating with the help. The lucky visitor who was invited into the inner sanctum of the sala meant you were either a friar, a foreigner, rich, or all of the above. No expense had been spared in the décor of the living room that revealed ceilings painted with garlands held up by rose-cheeked cherubs. Trompe l’oeil of receding colonnades on the walls created an illusion of expanding space. No carpets hid the glory of the wide narra floor planks that were rubbed daily with a coconut husk and banana leaves to a mirror finish.”

I look forward to the completion of both projects—indeed, of more novels that draw on our tremendously rich history to examine the emergence of our nationhood.

I’D LIKE to acknowledge and express my appreciation for a message from reader Nikko Salvador, who wrote in to say—in response to my GenSan piece last week—that a museum can indeed be found at his school, the Notre Dame of Dadiangas University, and that a few steps away stands a thorny dadiangas plant. I’ll make sure to visit these spots the next time I fly down to GenSan.

Penman No. 5: Encounters with History

Library

Penman for Monday, July 23, 2012

I HAD an unusual encounter with history last week, by way of two sorties to two different exhibits that turned out to have a bit more to do with each other than I might’ve initially thought.

The first trip was something I’d been meaning to do for years but just never came around to doing—a visit to the Presidential Museum and Library at Malacañan Palace. (Our tour guide took pains to point out that “Malacañan” referred specifically to the presidential seat of power and the more popular “Malacañang” to the entire place itself; I think we’ll go with Malacañang for the rest of this piece.)

It’s one of those sad ironies that we footloose Filipinos can make elaborate and expensive plans to visit the White House and Buckingham Palace without ever setting foot on our own presidential abode. It could be that for far too long—particularly all those years of martial law—Malacañang didn’t lend itself to friendly visitations by ordinary citizens. That, plus the fact that we Pinoys have never had much of a sense of history, beyond routine celebrations of Independence Day and tired if not tiresome commemorations of Edsa 1. We’ve been schooled to think of history as high drama, as a calendar of big events, forgetting that those events were forged in offices, classrooms, factories, and the shade of mango trees.

Malacañang is, of course, the perfect theater for high drama—one of the balconies in the museum was the setting for that famous picture of Ferdinand Marcos and his family vowing defiantly to stay and to fight on, shortly before decamping to America in February 1986—but it was also, and remains, home and office to a long succession of men and women who led the country, people doing nothing more earth-shattering on most days than signing letters of condolences and felicitations and proclamations declaring this or that period to be National Fire Prevention Week.

As a museum rat, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential and royal regalia, and by the mementoes left behind by the high and mighty—not to be awed by them, but to appreciate their humanity behind the pomp and the poses. George Washington’s signature blue coat is on display at the Smithsonian, but so are his dentures, which must have hurt far worse than mine, and I don’t even have to worry about putting a country together; the mock pockets on Jose Rizal’s jacket in Dapitan betray a sharp fashion sense even in exile (and the smallness of his body size—a surprise to many Filipinos expecting a titan of a hero—merely accentuates his real stature).

Last week, thanks to the invitation of Ronnie Geron—an undersecretary in the palace and an avid member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines—our group of over 30 fountain-pen enthusiasts got to visit and tour the Presidential Museum and Library. Since fountain pens themselves are something of an anachronism, stepping back into presidential history was a treat for all of us, and we can’t be blamed for feeling that the highlight of the tour was staring at Emilio Aguinaldo’s pen, or what remained of it—a piece we quickly identified as being very likely a Waterman 52 in mottled red hard rubber (a sorry shell of a pen, in exchange for which I offered to provide a near-mint example from my collection—but no one seemed to be too interested).

There were no other pens to be found that day in the museum and library, but there were roomfuls of other memorabilia, from the time of the Spanish and American governors-general to the prewar, postwar, and recent presidents: photographs, paintings, clothes, books, furniture, documents, and campaign materials. Every president had either a room or a corner devoted to materials from his or her presidency, and our very knowledgeable guide—a young man named Louie—walked us through the history of every room, mindful that the building itself was historic, quite apart from its residents.

The museum and library are located in what is now known as Kalayaan Hall, a 1921 structure used by the Americans as their Executive Building; the Marcoses called it Maharlika Hall, but Cory Aquino gave it its present name. Aside from the Main Hall and Library (or the Gallery of Presidents), the building also contains the Old Waiting Room Gallery, with materials from the Spanish era; the Old Executive Secretary’s Office, with rare Rizaliana; the Old Governor-General’s Office, the Osmeña Cabinet Room, the West and East Staircases, the Quezon Executive Office, the Quirino Council of State Room, the Roxas Cabinet Room, and the Northeast and Southeast Galleries. Plan on spending at least an hour to see and imbibe everything.

What most Filipinos (including many of us) don’t know is that tours of the Presidential Museum and Library are available for a minimal fee to individuals or groups who make the necessary arrangements beforehand. (Call 784-4286 local 4945 or email pml@malacanang.gov.ph for details.) The entrance is through Gate 6, and parking can be had at the Freedom Park just outside the gates.

Another exhibit that I made a point of looking into was one at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery, titled “ReCollection 1081: Clear and Present Danger (Visual Dissent on Martial Rule),” co-curated by Marika Constantino and Ruel Caasi, and staged by the CCP in cooperation with the Liongoren Gallery. ReCollection 1081 brings together a selection of artworks produced by Filipino artists during and after martial law, as well as publications produced by both the underground and alternative press.

Those who lived through martial law can’t possibly miss the irony of the exhibition venue—much hated and derided in Imelda Marcos’ time as the domain of the elite, but long since reclaimed by more ordinary folk.

This show was already written about by Constantino herself a few days ago here in the Star, so I’ll just have a few points to add—chiefly, that the artist’s protest against oppression, injustice, and exploitation both preceded and continued after martial law (see Jaime de Guzman’s Sabbath of the Witches, 1970, and Nunelucio Alvarado’s Tunok sa Dahon, 1986).

It was martial law, of course, that provoked both the most explicit and subtlest forms of protest, demanding both courage and wit of the artist, and this range of responses is on full display in the exhibit. Assembling these works was already a feat in itself, considering how many more such works (and their creators) have been lost in the crossfire. Their survival into another century and their installation in the cultural bastion of the dictatorship is sweet poetic justice.

ReCollection 1081 runs until September 30.