Penman No. 295: Writers in Wartime

 

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Penman for Monday, March 26, 2018

 

 

I WAS busy a couple of weeks ago going through my library to see which books I could donate to a sale being conducted by our students to benefit worthwhile projects. I happily gave away about a hundred books and will be ready and willing to unload even more next time. But what inevitably happens when you sort out your effects like this is that long-forgotten objects turn up in the pile.

One such item that emerged from this recent overhaul was a thin journal of no more than 70 pages, the December 1943 issue of Philippine Review, published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis, with Angel C. Anden and Jose Luna Castro as associate editors. A little research shows that the Review didn’t last very long—it ran from March 1943 and closed down in December 1944. But during that brief lifetime, it managed to publish such later luminaries as Nick Joaquin, and apparently enjoyed quite a reputation (it was also edited for some time by Francisco “Mang Kiko” Icasiano, whose musings “From My Nipa Hut” graced the prewar Sunday Tribune Magazine).

Indeed, this issue of December 1943 contained not only short stories by Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera, essays by Camilo Osias, Luis Montilla, and Federico Mangahas, and a translation of Mi Ultimo Adios by Juan Collas, but also a short commentary on the language of the Constitution by a 22-year-old Jovito R. Salonga, who had just been released from prison for his work in the underground.

It’s a fascinating window on literature in a time of war, what the politics of the moment can do to writers, and what coping strategies they employ. (My thoughts strayed quickly to a recent discussion online about Filipino writers and politics in these times of tokhang.) The issue opens with paid advertisements—mostly from Japanese companies like the Yokohama Specie Bank’s local branch—hailing “The Second Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Greater East Asia War” while at the same time greeting readers a “Merry Christmas!”

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The Reyes and Alfon stories (“Christmas Visit” and “Jingle Bells”) speak of love and loss, acknowledging the sudden shift in the meaning of Christmas from that December of just two years ago to this one; both stories end with their protagonists weeping uncontrollably. The Reyes story can’t help falling back on old tropes, referring to “Gary Cooper.” So for the fictionists, at least, the transition remains sharp and painful, with metaphors to imply the darkening of the times.

Most of the essayists seem to have no such qualms. In his essay on “A Program of Enlightenment,” Camilo Osias (yes, he of the Philippine Readers series, and future Senate President) argues for a new culture “for all Filipinos under an independent Philippines,” one “characterized by a sound eclecticism in the choice of its elements—by the same careful eclecticism which the Japanese have observed in their cultural borrowings…. The cultural activities to be carried out shall emphasize the precedence of State, national, or social interests over those of the individual.”

For his part, the scholar Luis Montilla writes on the theme of “Rizal as an Orientalist,” and suggests that Rizal would have been sympathetic to Japanese motives had he been alive, even implying that this could be because Rizal was partly Japanese. In his footnotes, he quotes Austin Craig’s statement in 1940 that “I am putting the finishing touches to my Rizal genealogy, now being able to show Japanese blood as well as two Spanish and five Chinese ancestors. I have church or court certificates proving everything.”

Montilla concludes: “Having had his attention directed early to the abuses, calumnies, and indignities heaped unjustly upon his people by the white race, Rizal had to be, and was, the embodiment of a true Oriental…. Now, the duly authorized representatives of the great Japanese Empire have repeatedly assured the Filipinos that Japan has come to these shores not to subjugate the natives of the country, much less to absorb them, but to guide them in their regeneration as true Filipinos, and that when they… shall have been so rejuvenated as to be, as a nation, worthy of membership in the family of Oriental nations, they will regain their long lost independence (and fully realize) the supreme efforts put up by Rizal as an Oriental to help educate and re-Orientalize his people for their preservation and dignification as a race….”

Was I reading a display of what might be called cultural collaboration? Not knowing these writers and the circumstances under which they worked, I have to withhold my judgment, keeping in mind as well that there was good reason for many Filipinos—after centuries of white-man rule—to accept the invading Japanese as liberators. But I felt much educated by these articles, which also reminded me of how our printed words define us, rightly or wrongly, long after we’re gone. They just might turn up in a dusty corner of someone’s bookshelf.

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)