Penman No. 282: Never Enough Patriots

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Penman for Monday, December 18, 2017

 

(THIS IS the last of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

Leonard Casper and Joseph Galdon aver that Manuel Arguilla’s best stories are those in the pastoral tradition, and I would agree that “Midsummer” is in a class all its own, but who knows what else he would have written, given ten or twenty more years? Stories like “Elias” convey less surface beauty than his pastorals, but in some ways are more resonant; his last story, “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” is something of a psychological thriller.

This brings to me my main point, which is to propose that to celebrate Arguilla is to recognize and embrace his complexity and even his seeming contradictions. In a sense, he prefigured the situation of many Filipino writers today who find themselves caught between burning local issues and the seductions of the global. The Third World is the new Nagrebcan, and what lies beyond it the new metropolis.

One thing we have to note of Arguilla’s work is that he wrote in English—indeed, a very refined and educated English—which tells us that while he wrote tirelessly and affectionately about the farmers of Nagrebcan, he wasn’t writing to be read by them. That’s not an accusation—only an observation of the fact that Arguilla was very much a member of his literary milieu, a milieu inflamed by proletarian ideals but one that still conducted its passionate debates in English.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Milwaukee, I found a copy in an old bookshop of the March 1936 issue of Story Magazine, America’s pre-eminent fiction publication then, featuring Sinai Hamada’s classic love story, “Tanabata’s Wife.” (I later gave that copy to the Hamadas in Baguio.) The author’s notes mentioned that Hamada had been preceded just the month before by another Filipino writer named Manuel Arguilla and a story titled “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.” Since then I tried to locate that issue, and more than 25 years later, I received it, as a gift from a friend who knew I had been looking for it. The note on the author doesn’t say much, only that “His biography has yet to reach us.” I also just recently acquired, on eBay, a copy of The Prairie Schooner from the Fall of 1935, where can be found a story titled “Midsummer” by Manuel Arguilla. This same journal would also later publish his story “Heat.”

All of these stories—including that of Hamada, who was younger than Arguilla by a year—had already been published in the Philippines. But they still sent them for publication in the US, because it was apparently important for them to do so in their time, just like we seek to be internationally published today not just to find more readers, but to be validated in the global society of letters.

They were young men in their early 20s, brimming with talent and ambition. All they wanted was to write, to be published, and to be read, just like all of you here today. And like many of you, they were outspoken about their beliefs, eccentric and maybe even offensive in certain ways, but totally dedicated to their craft. We lionize them today for good reason, but in truth, as persons and as writers, they were far from perfect, which also means that we can be like them.

Even after his martyr’s death, critical views of Arguilla’s work and legacy have varied widely. Indeed, among his peers, there seems to be a qualified dissatisfaction with his fiction that some of us today would find strange, if not unkind.

As I was preparing for this talk, I was elated to find, in my stash of old literary journals, a copy of the 1952 Literary Apprentice, where five writers—Lyd Arguilla, Ligaya Victorio Fruto, Francisco Arcellana, Edilberto Tiempo, and Alejandrino Hufana—shared their reminiscences of Manuel Arguilla in short personal essays. Lyd sweetly remembers the man and the husband—his bellowing laughter, his flair for fashion, his love of swimming, dancing, jazz, and poker (at least we share something), of Shakespeare, and above all of writing. Ligaya savors the “champaca-laden atmosphere” of the porch at the Arguillas’ house on M.H. del Pilar and the carefree banter of Manila’s prewar literary set, the names and initials of the notables—AEL, AVH, Estrella, Daisy and Bert, SP and Mary, and someone simply referred to by his surname Villa—dropping like cookies along some magical pathway. It all vanishes, of course, in the devastating war that sweeps in from just around the corner—the house, the company, the laughter, the floral fragrance.

Five years Manuel’s junior, Franz recalls Arguilla writing him a letter, urging him to “be true to your real self,” and gifting him with a book with that now famous inscription, “To Francisco Arcellana, May he put more life into his art and less art into his life.” Remarkably, Franz’s memoir ends with a candid admission that “the only thing that pleased me about him was his writing—when he wrote short stories. I didn’t like being lectured to, not even by him…. I shall never be able to forgive him his patriotism. He was no patriot…. He was a writer of short stories. He should have left patriotism alone…. We have many patriots. We don’t have too many writers.”

Ed Tiempo recognizes that “the outstanding gift of Arguilla is his sense of people, his characters,” but adds quickly that “people alone do not make successful fiction.” Ever the traditionalist, Tiempo looks for clearer meaning and coherence in Arguilla’s fiction, but grants that “because we accept the authenticity of the small details, there is something coercive even in (his) unconvincing characters.” Alex Hufana, another son of La Union, does a close reading of “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” and pronounces it authentic, praising the author for keeping “his hand cool even as they hold hot soil—decorum required of him as an artist.”

Whatever your own estimation of Arguilla may be, you will probably agree with me that at his best, he delivered what I tell my students should be the hallmark of a great story: it should not only be well written, but it should be moving, and it should be memorable.

What Arguilla teaches the young writer is that technical excellence alone is not enough. Too many writers exhibit little more than cleverness and linguistic virtuosity, with hardly any emotional impact or lasting effect. He also reminds us what a vast country we have, much larger, richer, and more complex than Starbucks, Facebook, and the Marvel and DC universe, and that a “real” writer, to use one of his favorite words, is one immersed enough in his or her society to recognize both beauty and brutality in the same place.

Franz Arcellana bemoans Arguilla’s loss to patriotism, but that too tells us something we often forget: that there are things more important than writing or literature, and country is one of them. In a war that tore through and across classes and across beliefs, Arguilla died for his country—not for literature, not for socialism, not for his class; well, maybe for Lydia, which makes him even more of a hero to me. With all due respect to my old teacher Franz, we have writers aplenty; of patriots, especially these days, we can never have enough.

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(Photo of Manuel Arguilla’s ancestral home along the National Highway in Bauang, La Union.)

Penman No. 281: The Writer in Progress

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Penman for Monday, December 11, 2017

 

(THIS IS the second of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

“Midsummer” is of course the quintessential mating story, setting the tone for the younger Arguilla’s lyrical odes to rippling muscles and shapely breasts. The man’s strength is contrasted with the girl’s slenderness, and this dichotomy would repeat itself many times over in the stories ahead: in “Heat,” where the Adonis-like Mero captivates Meliang, she of the “long and supple thighs” and whose body exudes “a healthy sweetness.” We see it again in “The Strongest Man”, where the “tall and shapely Onang” enchants Ondong, whose muscles flow under his sweating skin. Mero and Meliang, Onang and Ondong—it’s tempting to think of Arguilla falling into a mannerism, a romantic formula after Amorsolo’s or Botong’s idealized physiques.

But he quickly disabuses us of our idyllic fantasies, because the same terrain in which so much beauty resides, in both the landscape and the bodies of its fecund youth, is shown to be awash with blood and riven by violence. The second story in the collection, right after “Midsummer,” is “Morning in Nagrebcan,” and it begins with a picturesque description of rustic serenity, depicting “the fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields.” But this mood is soon shattered by the brutal killing of a puppy, and the awakening of the children to the harshness of life—indeed, to evil—in what may seem to be a bucolic paradise.

Sometimes the violence is more subtle and only hinted at. “A Son Is Born” is a long and almost anthropological account of family life and birthing rites, ending on the luminously optimistic note of a Christmas birth and a boy named Jesus, but it is shadowed by its very first line: “It was the year the locusts came and ate the young rice in the fields.” Life is difficult, but it goes on.

“How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” appears midway through the book, providing another tranquil respite, returning us to tall and lovely women meeting male approbation.

And then almost abruptly come the city stories, beginning with tales of marital stress and distress. Here I can sense the young writer and husband flexing his muscles and trying out new material and new approaches, experimenting with the kind of breathy, abstracted adoration you might find in Arcellana, acknowledging his broadening universe, with references to Picasso and Vanity Fair popping up in the prose. There’s even an attempt at comedy in “The Maid, the Man, and the Wife.” “The Long Vacation” is a melodramatic paean to loss, in the spirit of Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” but without its magic. In these so-called “marriage” stories, it is the brooding hulk of Elias, in the story of that name, that most comes alive, but this is the one story in that suite that returns to the countryside, as if to make the point that country folk can also lead terribly complicated lives and make terribly complicated decisions.

The last part of the book, which is divided into three, comprises the “socialist” stories, for want of a better description. “The Socialists,” “Epilogue to Revolt,” “Apes and Men,” and “Rice” return us to a rural setting, but this time with an explicitly political agenda, which is to awaken the reader to the inhuman exploitation of the Filipino farmer and worker of the 1930s.

“Caps and Lower Case” is often hailed as a searing indictment of labor exploitation, and indeed it pleads the case of its protagonist—a proofreader who needs the relief of just a small raise—with eloquent anguish, but ultimately it deals him a crushing defeat. “The Socialists” is a scathing satire of armchair socialism. “Epilogue to Revolt” deals with surrender and complicity, “Apes and Men” with industrial unrest, and “Rice” with hunger among the tillers.

These were all worthy subjects, of course, the stories reflecting the afterglow of the recent Sakdalista rebellion and other such uprisings in both country and city. Among writers then, the same tensions would simmer over what would be called “proletarian literature,” its standard held high by such avatars as S. P. Lopez and Arturo Rotor, and inevitably Manuel Arguilla. On the other side of the argument were ranged the likes of Jose Garcia Villa, A. E. Litiatco, and a young Nick Joaquin, who in a 1985 essay would dismiss proletarian literature as little more than that generation’s adoption of the latest American fad. It “failed to sweep the local scene,” Joaquin would chortle, “and the only writer of importance who may have been influenced by it was poor Manuel Arguilla—who got derailed.”

Arguilla’s avowals notwithstanding, however—and at the risk of committing blasphemy in the Vatican—let me opine that it would be a mistake to deify Arguilla as any kind of socialist icon. True, he embraced “proletarian literature,” but his proletarian stories are thoroughly depressing, their desperate protagonists broken and beaten, with the sole exception of “Epilogue to Revolt,” which is one of my favorites because it breaks the mold while remaining absolutely true to character and situation. His realism owes more to Charles Dickens than to Maxim Gorky.

Manuel Arguilla was, to me, very much a writer in progress—a writer still coming to terms with his material and his society, one who had explored the range of his talents and was arriving at a fusion of those extremes. Arguilla’s stories have to be read as a continuum, where country and city were beginning to come together in his artistic and political sensibilities. But then, all too soon, he died, leaving us to wonder if his stories could have taken a brighter and more hopeful turn in the postwar world he never saw.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 280: Handfuls of Fragrant Hay

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Penman for Monday, December 4, 2017

 

I WAS asked to give a keynote address at this year’s Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union on the subject of “Celebrating Arguilla”—Manuel Estabilla Arguilla, the writer who was born in Nagrebcan, Bauang, 106 years ago. I’ll share that talk in three installments starting this week.

“Celebrating Arguilla” seems simple enough. After all, who hasn’t read and enjoyed “Midsummer” or “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife,” or pondered the social implications of “Caps and Lower Case,” to mention three of his most familiar stories?

But right there is a huge difference in theme and sensibility between “Midsummer” and “Caps and Lower Case,” which might as well have been written by two different people. How the dreamy romanticism of “Midsummer” could coexist with the gloomy realism of “Caps and Lower Case” might seem a mystery, but those of us who’ve written and read enough will know that, well, it happens, and perhaps it should. You see this spread and stretch in Arcellana, for example, in NVM Gonzalez, in Sionil Jose, even in Nick Joaquin.

I am not a literary scholar or theorist, so I cannot speak about Arguilla the way Fr. Joseph Galdon and E. San Juan do, and I have no special familiarity with him the way near-contemporaries like F. Sionil Jose would. I am a biographer of sorts, but have no access to his life beyond the standard summaries on Wikipedia and a few scattered accounts.

All I have to go on is the fact that I, too, have written stories, was born in a small village far from Manila and close to the sea, and have dealt quite often with the countryside in my fiction, although readers who know me as a city boy have never probably noticed that. I moved to the big city much sooner than Arguilla did, and so I cannot claim the almost ritualistic knowledge of rural life that he displays with gusto in his recollections of Nagrebcan, his evocation of such details as “handfuls of fragrant hay” in that stolidly premodern society where men till the fields and harvest the grain, and the women cook and wash.

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So the best I can do today is to engage Arguilla in a kind of conversation, raising the questions that one writer might have for another. Why do you write what you write, for whom, and for what? And for myself, I might ask, what is this writer doing that I should value? How does he or she reflect on my own work?

Without an autobiographical essay in which Arguilla himself would have explained his writing, I can only speculate on the answers based solely on the evidence of his fiction and of what others have said about his work.

Manuel Arguilla’s first—and to my knowledge, his only solely authored—book, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife, a collection of 19 stories, came out in 1940, on the eve of a war that Arguilla would not survive. He was 29 when the book was published; within four years he was dead at the hands of the Japanese, reportedly beheaded at the Manila Chinese Cemetery in August 1944 along with other guerrilla leaders.

History tells us that 33 can be a good time to die, if you’ve more or less accomplished your mission, as did Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, Eva Peron, and, just short by a few months, Bruce Lee. Arguably, Arguilla had much more to write, much more to achieve, when his life was abruptly cut short by war.

He had published his first book, with some of his stories appearing in prestigious American literary journals. He had successfully transplanted himself from his provincial roots in La Union to cosmopolitan Manila, earning a degree in Education in 1933 from the University of the Philippines, where he led the UP Writers Club and edited the Literary Apprentice. He taught creative writing at the University of Manila before moving to the Bureau of Welfare and edited its publication well into wartime, when he worked for the guerrillas in intelligence and was captured and executed by the Japanese.

His widow Lydia, herself a fine writer and also a guerrilla, went on to become a painter and to establish the Philippine Art Gallery in Ermita, a seminal promoter of modernist art in the country, and served as a diplomat in Geneva before her death in 1969. In 1957, the book Philippine Tales and Fables was published in Manila by Capitol Publishing, with Manuel posthumously sharing the authorship with Lyd. Two of Lyd’s stories—the first published under her maiden name Lydia Villanueva, before she married Manuel—are featured in Leopoldo Yabes’ landmark anthologies of the Philippine short story.

I have yet to locate his essays, but Manuel Arguilla definitely produced more than the 19 stories in his 1940 collection. One story, the rather whimsical “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” was published in the Philippine Review in April 1943, a year before his death. But it will always be the stories in his book that will define Arguilla for us, and I’ll do a quick review of these for those who may not be too familiar with his work.

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Penman No. 267: What This Prize Should Mean to You (Part 1)

 

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Penman for Monday, September 4, 2017

 

I WAS much honored to be the guest speaker last Friday at the 67th annual Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, so I’ll share my talk with my Penman readers this week and next:

First of all, I’d like to thank the Palanca Foundation and family for this tremendous honor, which I honestly never expected to receive. For about forty years, I have been watching and listening to many very distinguished people at this podium explicating on literature and society—and you will forgive my bias if I say that the writers were usually more memorable than the politicians—but I never imagined myself to be in their exalted position.

Indeed I have been fortunate enough to join the Palanca Hall of Fame, but I am no literary genius or philosophizer. I have always introduced myself as a Swiss Army Knife of writing, a practitioner and professional who has made a living of his words. I was already working as a newspaper reporter at 18, before I won my first Palanca; I was a journalist beholden to the facts before I was liberated by fiction.

Tonight I will address myself mainly to the first-time winners in this audience, to those who entered the Rigodon Ballroom with an extra spring in their step and a sparkle in their eyes, with their parents or partners in tow.

I can tell you now that you will never forget this evening, as I have never forgotten my own introduction to this very special society of peers and comrades. It was on this day in 1975 that I won my first Palanca, a share of second prize for a short story in English. The awarding was held on the top floor of the company building in what used to be Echague—now, of course, Carlos Palanca Street—in Manila.

It was a little less opulent than this ballroom, but to that 21-year-old winning a prize the first time he joined, it might as well have been heaven, nirvana, and Camelot all rolled into one. I knew no one, and no one knew me, and I could only watch from afar as celebrated writers like Krip Yuson—who shared first prize in my category with Leo Deriada—regaled each other, likely with stories of their latest exploits in Ermita.

I still have my certificate from that ceremony: an elaborately hand-lettered work of art larger than a college diploma. Since I had dropped out in my freshman year and was working in a government office under martial law, I treasured that certificate as if it were my diploma, and had it framed. I’m told that the calligrapher who crafted those certificates has passed away, but his strokes remain indelible in my memory.

With my prize money of a couple of thousand pesos, plus some savings, I bought my first car—which tells you what kind of car it was: a canary-yellow 1963 Datsun Bluebird, battered but bright, into rehabilitating which I would throw many more years of good money after bad and not get even one day’s worth of driving, before my mechanic finally ran away with it. Years later I would get a call from the Quezon City police to inform me that they had impounded a yellow Bluebird registered in my name, and I could have it back if I paid the fee. I went over to take a look—the car’s tires were all flat, and it was riddled with bullet holes. I muttered an oath and a prayer and left it there.

So that’s what happened with my first Palanca prize, and one of these days if I turn that into a short story I might get some of my money back. But the most grievous consequence of that first victory was the fact that, for the next four years, I lost. I turned in entry after entry, and kept losing and losing. Considering who was winning—the likes of Gregorio Brillantes and F. Sionil Jose—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I had to fight back the growing fear that my first Palanca was a joke.

In 1980 I won again, and soon hit my stride. It took 20 more years to enter the Hall of Fame, by which time I had published ten books, gone back to college, and begun another career as a teacher. I never joined the Palancas again, except to be an occasional judge, but I have come to these awarding ceremonies as often as I could, eager to witness the annual emergence of new literary talent.

I give you this overview of my long relationship with these awards to bring us to the subject proper of my brief talk this evening, “What This Prize Should Mean to You.” The quick and correct response, of course, is to say that a Palanca award will bring you honor, some fame—certainly bragging rights for your proud mama and papa—and even some money, if not for a car then for a weekend in Boracay or a new phone or laptop to replace the old one.

You will be walking on air for a couple of weeks, until the novelty wears off, the money is spent, and you return to the humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is keeps you and your family alive. You will discover that, to most people, your literary genius makes no difference and no sense. You will begin to wonder, as I did, if it was all a fleeting illusion.

Some of you will fall by the wayside, but most of you will press on, like we did, wanting this Cinderella moment to repeat itself year after year. It will not always happen, and you will learn to take your losses as well as your triumphs—those years I kept joining and losing became my real education—but if you keep at it, you will reach the point when the winning will matter less than the writing. That, I think, will be your greatest victory, the realization that these awards are but an enabler, a handmaiden of books that will be validated no longer by a panel of three judges but by a readership of thousands.

(To be continued)

 

Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.

 

 

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

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Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

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“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

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But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

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Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

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This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

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Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

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The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

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At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

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To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

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and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

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Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

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And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

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Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

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But words can also heal.

Words can save.

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Words make law.

Words make war.

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Words make money.

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Words make peace.

Words make nations.

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Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

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Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

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Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou

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Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.

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Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.

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I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”

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Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).

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We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.

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Penman No.205: Sojourn in Seoul (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 27, 2016

 

HAVING PLANNED our trip to Seoul months in advance, I made a point of touching base with some local contacts for possible meetings—something I usually don’t do, wary of disturbing people with my unseasonable presence. But with a week to kill in one city and with some longstanding connections in place, I thought it would be even more ill-mannered if I didn’t at least tell them that I was going to be in town.

One of those connections was Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea’s big industrial center four hours by train from Seoul. Sukjoo—a specialist in world literature—happens to be married to Catherine Rose Torres, one of our bright new young fictionists who now serves as First Secretary and Consul at our embassy in Berlin. I’d first met Catherine in 2011 when I attended the Singapore Writers Festival and she was with our embassy there, and I was later very happy to write a blurb for her first book, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories (UST, 2015).

It’s really these personal connections that make for global literary networking, the value of which I can’t overemphasize. In 2014, Sukjoo translated one of my stories for publication in Global World Literature, which is put out by some of Korea’s foremost literary scholars and critics in that area. Through Sukjoo, I was also able to contribute an article to the Korea-based journal Asia, in which I wrote about some of our most gifted and exciting younger writers. As a result of that article, one of our best young non-fictionists, Sandra Nicole Roldan, will be visiting Seoul this week to attend the 2016 Asia Literature Creative Workshop.

And so our connections continue and deepen. When they learned that I was visiting Korea, Sukjoo’s organization invited me to a special meeting, so I could tell them more about Philippine literature. That gathering took place at Seoul National University toward the end of our visit, and a very fruitful and engaging encounter it turned out to be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their very first question had nothing to do with lyric poetry: “What do you think of your new President, Rodrigo Duterte?”

It will take more than this column to share my answer with you, but suffice it to say for now that we talked about our colonial history, our Catholic predisposition to suffering, the two Joses (not me) by which our literature is best known overseas, class as the key divisor in our literature and society, Korea’s and the Philippines’ shared experience of dictatorship, and the irony of having to deal with a resurgent Park and a resurgent Marcos, and our younger writers’ affinity with Gaiman, Murakami, and Wattpad.

We discussed my translated story, “In the Garden,” which I’d written in the 1980s about militarization in the countryside and the moral duty of a teacher caught in the crossfire. While the topics were unavoidably contentious, our meeting itself was thoroughly pleasant and mutually informative, capped by dinner, shop talk, and, yes, chatter about Lee Min-ho.

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The second highlight of our visit—away from the malls and the flea markets—was a meeting with the Filipino community in Seoul, which had also been pre-arranged by Catherine through her Seoul colleague, the very capable Third Secretary and Vice Consul Ella Mitra.

It was a Sunday—our last full day in Korea—and much to our surprise, the embassy was open and bustling with people, with a wedding taking place right in Ella’s office. (“We can officiate at weddings,” Ella told us, “as long as the two parties are both Filipino citizens. We’re open on Sundays because that’s when most of the community can come.”) There were over 40,000 Filipinos in Korea, Ella informed me, many employed as factory workers in jobs that the locals themselves prefer not to do.

I’d been asked by the embassy to give a reading for the community—something I love to do whenever I’m abroad, as it puts me in touch with ordinary Filipinos striving to do their best in often very challenging circumstances. The Filipino, I like to say whenever the opportunity arises, is the modern-day Ulysses, roaming recklessly to the farthest reaches of the globe, but imbued with an unfailing sense of home. Now here they were, a crowd that filled the room beyond our most generous expectations—professionals, teachers, graduate students, Filipino-Korean couples, even the Ambassador himself, the dapper and articulate Raul Hernandez.

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The embassy had calendared my reading as its second Sentro Rizal activity, and with June 12 coming up, it seemed a good time to remind ourselves of the things that both divided and united us, and of the need to hang together as Filipinos, at a time and in a region of revived nationalisms. Even so I chose to do a very light reading, one that made fun of my own social ineptitude in cross-cultural situations, and thankfully it went over well with the audience. More than the reading, it was the ensuing Q&A and freewheeling chat over pancit and puto that proved most gratifying. I could sense the community’s strength of spirit, its determination to master a new cultural terrain.

I was especially happy to see a former student, Tech Apognol, now doing an MA in International Relations and speaking Korean. She’s hardly alone; the association of Filipino grad students in Korea now numbers 500, I was told, and there were plenty of masteral and doctoral scholarships for those inclined. “We can take classes in English,” one student named Eve told me.

Another grad student named RJ solved a mystery that had been bugging me for 40 years. Back then, I told him, I was a young writer employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, and one of my tasks was to help edit the Five-Year Development Plan, which was thicker than an encyclopedia because of its bloated prose. On the other hand, I recalled, the South Korean development plan that I used as a reference was no bigger and fatter than a paperback novel—and look, I told RJ, where Korea was now. “Ah, that’s easy,” RJ said. “It’s because the Koreans value brevity, and memos are expected to be no more than a page. The higher up the ladder papers go, the more concise they’re expected to be.”

The shopping was fun—just the flea markets for us, please, not the high-end shops—and the streetcorner food delicious, but it was, ultimately, our encounters with the people that added the most value to our visit. Kamsahamnida, Sukjoo, Cathy, Ella, and Tech for these memorable exchanges.