Penman No. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014


A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.


SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.

Penman No. 57: On Politics in Fiction

BaldwinPenman for Monday, July 29, 2013

I WAS in Hong Kong last weekend to talk to an international group of graduate writing students about a subject that, I proposed, we were all acutely aware of and very likely had done something in, but rarely dwelt on in creative writing class (although we do discuss it a lot in a reading or critical context): the relationship between literature and politics, or self and society. I’d put together a module that explored the way various authors from different environments have dealt with political subjects, primarily in fiction.

The selections I chose—15 short stories and three novels from all over—covered a range of specific issues from race to sexuality, and also a range of approaches and techniques. We discussed these examples, paying close attention to how the authors drew attention to their causes and concerns in an aesthetically satisfying and politically effective manner.

My students came from the UK, the US, India, New Zealand, and Singapore, and many lived in Hong Kong or mainland China. Therefore, they represented a broad range of social and political experiences, which also informed their responses to the fiction we took up. (We Pinoys—at least the older ones among us—are relatively immersed in political literature and discourse, given our history and our circumstances; whether as readers or writers, we can’t avoid Rizal, and why should we? Despite more recent forays into postmodernism, speculative fiction, and other fresher approaches, our fiction remains stolidly realist in the mainstream, compelled to account for the harrowing truths that drip from our headlines.)

We opened by discussing three stories that dealt with the thorny issue of race—thornier, of course, in some countries and societies than others. Race may not be as visible and as contentious a political factor with us Filipinos as it is in, say, Singapore or Malaysia, not to mention the US and the UK, if only because we have assimilated the Chinese, for example, so well into our bodies and body politic that it will be nigh impossible to mount anything anti-Chinese without cutting off our own noses. That doesn’t mean that we’re above or beyond racism, regionalism, and ethnic bias; this will raise some hackles, but I suspect that we Pinoys practice a benign racism in insisting that all our PBA imports should be black. It’s for this reason, among others, that I make sure I cover African-American material in my classes.

The three race-related stories that I chose were James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Six Feet of the Country,” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Baldwin and Walker dealt with the African-American experience, and Gordimer with apartheid in South Africa. (I wish I’d found a Chinese or Malaysian story dealing with race issues, and will do that the next time I do this module.)

Not only were the Baldwin, Gordimer, and Walker stories gut-wrenchingly powerful pieces of prose. They also represented different approaches to the same presumptive subject of the search for racial equality and self-realization, and this was what I wanted my students to see: how you could be so potently political, so committed to your cause, and yet also so level-headed and so composed that you never lose control of your material, or otherwise strangle it with heavy-handedness.

“Going to Meet the Man” was published in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights campaign in the US, and Baldwin—one of America’s most prominent black writers—could have written a typical story featuring a black character struggling against injustice and racial oppression at the hands of the white majority. All these elements are in the story, but James Baldwin does the daringly unexpected: for his narrator, he assumes the voice of Jesse, a white sheriff. The mild-mannered Jesse is a patronizing racist who can’t understand how blacks could be so upset with their lot that they would march in the open and disturb the peace, forcing him to take punitive action. Jesse also has a far more domestic problem: he can’t get it up for his wife, and the only way he can solve that is to pretend, strangely enough, that she’s black. But the story’s most horrifying moment comes from Jesse’s past, from his recollection of a childhood “picnic” that turns out to be the brutal lynching of a black man.

Nadine Gordimer’s story, first published in 1953—four decades before the formal abolition of apartheid in South Africa—is also told from the point of view of a white man, a landowner who albeit reluctantly takes up the cudgels for his black workers when the white authorities make a ghastly administrative mistake and return the wrong corpse for the man’s relatives to bury. (“There are so many black faces—surely one will do?”) The white protagonist here acts not out of politically enlightened outrage, but rather out of a deep annoyance with the bureaucracy, as if he himself had been personally offended. (And yes, before you ask, the tragicomic mix-up of bodies here would inspire my own Soledad’s Sister many years later.)

Alice Walker would gain fame for The Color Purple, a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters, but before that she wrote the story “Everyday Use,” which focuses on the home visit of a young, college-educated black woman to her poor mother and sister. Told from the mother’s point of view, the story shows how differently the educated and politically empowered daughter Dee now acts from those she left behind—she wants her mother to give her a precious quilt, a family heirloom, that she plans to use as a piece of décor, and can’t understand when her mother refuses to give it to her, since the quilt has been promised to her sister Maggie, who’ll be putting it to everyday use. Thus, no matter how much Dee may have gained in the city in political and cultural sophistication (she has even changed her name to “Wangero” in her own affirmation of black power), she has clearly lost touch with her own roots, no longer able to recognize the truly authentic and truly valuable.

What’s there to learn for writers from these three examples?

First, that good, sharp authors reject the obvious, and are willing to take risks with their material and their treatment. For his central character, Baldwin chose the antagonist, the one more difficult to portray with fidelity, if you’re on the other side; rather than demonize Jesse, Baldwin presents him with not a little sympathy, making him even more alarming. Rather than the victim, Gordimer chose to focus on the man in the middle, the individual caught in a moral dilemma; the man’s bravado is ultimately ineffectual, but his decision to act challenges the reader more likely to fence-sit in the same circumstances. Walker takes on the natural protagonist with her all-black cast, but also highlights the important differences between them, reminding us that “race” comprises individuals and great divergences of experience and belief.

Second, that they don’t come to easy conclusions, and allow for the complexity and even the complicity of their characters to come through. You don’t do characters and their readers a favor by creating flawless heroes and thoroughly hateful villains. Real life very often lies somewhere in between.

In other stories by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, and our own Merlinda Bobis, my students and I also saw how authors with very strong political messages to convey did so, more effectively, by employing restraint and ambiguity, rather than excess and unyielding certainty. In other words, the best writers trust the intelligence and the natural humanity of their readers to lead them to what is reasonable and just. If you want to write good political fiction, first create good art, and leave the sloganeering to the editorial writers.

(Photo from

Penman No. 45: Distance and Intimacy in Prose


Penman for Monday, May 6, 2013

VERY RECENTLY, over a long weekend, I was at the City University of Hong Kong where I had been invited to hold what they call a “generative workshop” for the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. City U’s low-residency MFA program has been a pioneer of its kind in our part of the world; what “low-residency” means is that you can take and complete most of the program from afar, online, having only to physically attend two or three sessions a year with one’s mentors at City U’s sprawling campus near the Kowloon Tong MTR station.

I’ve been privileged to be one of these long-distance mentors (in my spare time, of course, as I teach full-time at UP), and to meet and interact with the kind of international crowd that Hong Kong and City U’s unique MFA setup attract. (Of note, two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—have graduated from this relatively new program.)

The low-residency formula allows for both students and instructors to come from all over—Asia, the US, the UK, and Europe. This time, my “mini-residency” group included a French woman doing risk analysis at a bank; a Chinese teacher of American literature; a Chinese-American woman who returned to Beijing from Chicago; an American working for a high-tech firm in Shenzen; and a Chinese-Canadian musician. None were full-time creative writers, but all shared a passion for the written word, and all had interesting stories to tell, whether in fiction or nonfiction.

The mini-residency is an intensive morning-to-evening three-day workshop designed to generate ideas for new work, and my fellow instructors (this year, it was the eminent American nonfictionist Robin Hemley—who’ll soon be heading the Yale-NUS liberal arts program in Singapore—and the Indian novelist Sharmistha Mohanty) and I were asked by the program director, the Chinese-Indonesian-American novelist Xu Xi, to focus on the subject of intimacy: not how intimately characters feel about each other, but how intimacy (and its correlative, distance) might be achieved in a creative work.

I designed my workshop to explore how writers employ different approaches and techniques to suggest distance or intimacy in their work, primarily through description and narration. We took “distance” here to mean both the physical and psychological distance between reader and subject—factors that mediate the reader’s response to the text and, of course, the presentation of the narrative itself.

In both fiction and creative nonfiction, writers assume a certain standpoint or perspective vis-à-vis their subject. This has a lot to do with—but is not necessarily the same as—point of view. A writer might be detached and clinical in his or her approach, describing things and narrating events from a distance or from behind a glass wall, with seemingly little or no involvement in the unfolding narrative. And then again, he or she might be and might sound totally immersed in the scene, surrendering all objectivity to subjective impression, led on less by logic than by emotion.

The best writers know how to provide both accurate descriptive detail and an evocation of a mood or an attitude by which we can perceive the subject. In his story “Breasts,” for example, Stuart Dybek writes: “When Joe looks up, Marisol stands as if she’s emerged from the morning glories. She has a white flower in her auburn hair. Her flower scent obliterates the mix of pigeons, garbage, and motor oil he’s come to associate with Johnny Sovereign. She’s dressed in white cotton x-rayed by sunlight: shirt opened a button beyond modest, tied in a knot above her exposed navel, and tight white toreador pants. The laces of the wedged shoes he used to call her goddess sandals snake around her ankles. Her oversized shades seem necessary to shield her from her own brightness.” Note the use of “white” and brightness as a motif, the incongruity of “pigeons, garbage, and motor oil,” the “sandals (snaking) around her ankles.”

Sometimes authors will nudge our attitudes along with some fine and subtle commentary. Look at how Dino Buzzati opens his now-classic postmodern short story “The Falling Girl”:

“Marta was nineteen. She looked out over the roof of the skyscraper, and seeing the city below shining in the dusk, she was overcome with dizziness. The skyscraper was silver, supreme and fortunate in that most beautiful and pure evening, as here and there the wind stirred a few fine filaments of cloud against an absolutely incredible blue background. It was in fact the hour when the city is seized by inspiration and whoever is not blind is swept away by it. From that airy height the girl saw the streets and the masses of buildings writhing in the long spasm of sunset; and at the point where the white of the houses ended, the blue of the sea began. Seen from above, the sea looked as if it were rising. And since the veils of the night were advancing from the east, the city became a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights. Within it were powerful men, and women who were even more powerful, furs and violins, cars glossy as onyx, the neon signs of nightclubs, the entrance halls of darkened mansions, fountains, diamonds, old silent gardens, parties, desires, affairs, and above all, that consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory.”

Note how the city is “seized by inspiration” and becomes “a sweet abyss”, and how “the long spasm of sunset” descends into “that consuming sorcery of the evening.”

And it isn’t just in fiction where the writer can manipulate the reader’s reception of a subject by calibrating distance. One of my favorite nonfiction writers, the surgeon Richard Selzer, describes an operation he undertakes with in-your-face immediacy:

“I follow his gaze upward, and see in the great operating lamp suspended above his belly the reflection of his viscera. There is the liver, dark and turgid above, there the loops of his bowel winding slow, there his blood runs extravagantly. It is that which he sees and studies with so much horror and fascination. Something primordial in him has been aroused—a fright, a longing. I feel it, too, and quickly bend above his open body to shield it from his view. How dare he look within the Ark! Cover his eyes! But it is too late; he has already seen; that which no man should; he has trespassed. And I am no longer a surgeon, but a hierophant who must do magic to ward off the punishment of the angry gods.”

This comes from an essay titled “The Surgeon as Priest,” so the religious imagery is intentional and necessary, but Selzer demonstrates how the physical can rise to the philosophical, as when he talks about opening up a patient’s body on the operating table:

“It is the stillest place that ever was. As though suddenly you are struck deaf. Why, when the blood sluices fierce as Niagara, when the brain teems with electricity, and the numberless cells exchange their goods in ceaseless commerce—why is it so quiet? Has some priest in charge of these rites uttered the command ‘Silence’? This is no silence of the vacant stratosphere, but the awful quiet of ruins, of rainbows, full of expectation and holy dread. Soon you shall know surgery as a Mass served with Body and Blood, wherein disease is assailed as though it were sin.”

We’re all a long way from being Buzattis and Selzers, but in my workshop, we took a look at how both fiction and nonfiction writers deal with distance and intimacy, and why certain approaches work best in certain situations. This led to the student-writer’s own exploration of his or her options when contemplating a work in prose: how far or how near are you going to be to your subject? How do you negotiate and calibrate physical and psychological distance?

Over the weekend, I gave my students a series of increasingly more complex exercises: first, to provide an objective description of a setting, any familiar spot in Hong Kong; second, to introduce a character into that setting; third, to give that character a problem; and fourth, to write a dramatic monologue, from within that character’s point of view, dealing with the problem and reflecting in some way the setting around the character.

City U’s impressive new Run Run Shaw Creative Media Center (pictured above), where our workshops were held, stands on top of a hill from where the lights of distant buildings glow and twinkle through the afternoon mist. It’s a great vantage point from which to appreciate the new, culturally resurgent Hong Kong—and to reflect on one’s own location in the great GPS of an increasingly globalizing literature.

Penman No. 7: Creative Writing in Hong Kong

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2012

I WAS honored a couple of weeks ago to be invited to visit the City University of Hong Kong to conduct a workshop for their graduate writing students and to give a reading before a gathering of some of Hong Kong’s brightest writing talents, students and teachers alike.

I’d been to CityU before—two years ago, I attended a literary conference there, then stayed on for the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Established only in 1984, CityU (I kept calling it CUHK, until I realized that these initials were already in use by the Chinese University of Hong Kong) has distinguished itself as one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and modern campuses, oriented toward the world and the future. Aside from the more traditional disciplines, for example, it has a School of Creative Media which teaches everything from Animation to Computational Art and a newly opened School of Energy and Environment where students can specialize in Climate Science and Energy Technology, among others.

The focus on business and technology is hardly surprising in a place like Hong Kong. What struck me was its apparent bid to become a cultural leader in the region as well—and not just in things Chinese, but in areas dominated and nearly monopolized by Western centers of learning.

A case in point was the CityU program that brought me over—Asia’s first and, so far, only low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) program. Only in its third year, the program has already attracted many first-rate students and teachers from around Asia and much farther beyond.

At the program’s helm is Xu Xi, a gifted fictionist and essayist who’s the living example of hybridity—she’s Indonesian Chinese, was raised in Hong Kong, and took her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She teaches at Vermont College, but has taken time out to direct the writing program at CityU. Though she’s now an American citizen, Hong Kong is in Xu Xi’s blood and imagination, permeating her fiction. She’s become one of the prime movers of creative writing in the region; we were fellow finalists for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and she came over as a panelist at the Dumaguete Writers Workshop two years ago.

In setting up their program, Xu Xi and CityU were deftly capitalizing on Hong Kong’s strategic position as an entrepot attracting people from all over the world, with its large expat community and a new generation of Chinese students writing in English. CityU’s English department was built up and strengthened by the likes of language and literature expert Kingsley Bolton (who gave a wonderful lecture on how the Chinese learned and used English, when I was there) who, a few years ago, co-edited a book with Ma. Lourdes Bautista on Philippine English.

The MFA, of course, remains the global standard for advanced studies in creative writing. (In a radio interview, my fellow Distinguished Visiting Writer, the English novelist Jill Dawson, and I were asked the perennial question: “If Charles Dickens didn’t need an MFA to write his novels, why should anyone?” We answered just as predictably: “You don’t need the MFA to write a novel, but it helps you to focus on writing your novel in an age full of distractions, which Dickens didn’t have to deal with. Besides, if painting and music can be taught and learned, so can writing.”)

There are hundreds of MFA and MA Creative Writing programs around the world today—the MFA tends to be longer and more intensive, and is considered a terminal degree—causing us teachers of writing to ask in wonder and consternation: “Why do so many people want to be writers?” The MFA’s low-residency version has been a recent innovation, with Xu Xi’s Vermont College among the pioneers; there are now around 50 such programs in the US, but only CityU offers one with a distinctly Asian orientation.

Under such programs, students sign up for one-on-one distance mentoring with the program’s international teaching staff, recruited from among the world’s best writers (including our very own New York-based poet Luis Francia). Once a year, for about ten days during the Hong Kong summer, everyone gets together on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong for a series of intensive day-long workshops with the majority of the faculty in attendance. Students are required to produce a creative thesis, a substantial body of work, and the program should be doable in two years. (Two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—are in the program; I also met students from the US, the UK, Australia, and, of course, Hong Kong and China.)

There are pluses and minuses to this kind of arrangement, but it’s clearly a boon to those who may otherwise be too busy or just don’t have the option of attending classes and workshops physically in a university, especially a foreign one. It’s less expensive than a traditional campus-based MFA—certainly less than a US or a UK degree—given that one needs to fly in to Hong Kong only occasionally. But Hong Kong being what it is, it’s by no means cheap, especially for Filipinos used to paying UP tuition fees. The costs aside, the international character of the program in terms of both its students and faculty is its strongest aspect, privileging, for once, an Asian sensibility over the usual Anglo-American bias in creative writing in English.

This was something we could’ve done at the University of the Philippines—we’ve had a 30-year lead over everyone else in the region, after all, in offering degrees in Creative Writing—but sadly we just don’t have the funds and the flexibility to attract the kind of international teaching staff you need for a program of this scale and orientation.

But thinking in terms of the region, CityU’s MFA program is a boost for Asian writing and teaching as a whole, the beginning of the reversal of a century-old paradigm where we learned to write in English only in and from the West.