Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.

Penman No. 319: A Priceless Literary Treasure

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Penman for Monday, September 17, 2018

 

SINCE I seriously got into antiquarian book collecting not too long ago, I’ve picked up quite a few books that have required the services of a professional book restorer. Surprisingly for most people (but not to bibliophiles who know the history of papermaking and publishing), the books most in need of help often turn out to be the newer ones—and by “newer” I mean a hundred years old or so, books published in the early to mid-1900s.

My oldest book dates back to 1551, an abridged volume in English on the history of institutions. I found it in, of all places, Cubao via an OFW who received it from her employer in Paris and sent it on to her son, who thankfully for me had little use for it and advertised it online. It’s amazingly robust for its age, still tightly bound in its original leather covers, the paper crisp and the printing sharp and clear, annotated here and there by the hand of its various owners down the centuries. (I was tempted, but I didn’t dare inscribe my name on it.)

That’s also true for relatively more recent books from the 1700s and 1800s, some of which look and feel like they rolled off the press yesterday. (I first fell in love with old books as a graduate student of Renaissance drama at the University of Michigan, which kept books from the 1600s on the regular shelves of the library, fascinating me with the stiffness of their paper and the tactile feedback of the letters). I often treat visitors to my office with a whiff of centuries past, ruffling the pages of, say, a Jesuit history from 1706 beneath their noses.

But books from the 1900s and later typically turn yellow and crumbly. The culprit, of course, is the acid that forms in modern, wood-based paper because of a number of both internal and external factors.

This was certainly true of a recent batch of books that I got back from my favorite book restorer (who shall remain unnamed for now lest she be deluged with requests, given that she has a full-time day job to mind). They included no book older than 1853 (a coverless edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines) and 1860 (a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, which I didn’t even realize was a first edition until I noted the bookseller’s penciled notation 20 years after I’d bought it).

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The prize in the pile was a thick clothbound book titled Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, Vol. 1 (Manila: J.S. Agustin & Sons, 1924). The volume is a compilation of smaller books from the 1920s to the 1930s, put together by the legendary professor and anthologist Dean Leopoldo Y. Yabes (1912-1986), who was scarcely in his twenties when he assembled and bound this compendium (signed “Bibliotheque Particuliere de Leopoldo Y. Yabes No. 118).

It’s an outstandingly rare collection, because it contains the only extant copy, as far as we know, of Rodolfo Dato’s landmark Filipino Poetry—the first major collection of Filipino poems in English. In the florid prose typical of the time, Dato prefaces his book by describing it as “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language,” acknowledging that “the full flowering of our poetic art has not yet come, but the fertile field smiles abundant growth and gives promise of a rich and bountiful harvest in a day not far distant.” In various pieces rhymed and metered, writers like Maximo M. Kalaw, Fernando Maramag, Procopio Solidum, and Maria Agoncillo give praise to mayas, moonlight, sampaguitas, and Motherland.

I had long been searching for the Dato book in the usual places online, for naught; but one day, at a committee meeting, my dear friend Jimmy Abad—the poet and anthologist—slipped it over to me, with the note “Priceless!” And indeed it was. Dean Yabes had gifted it to Prof. Abad, who was now passing it on to me in that timeless ritual that exalts and humbles writers and teachers who know exactly what they are receiving.

The compendium also contains an English-German Anthology of Filipino Poets  translated and edited by Pablo Laslo, with a preface by Salvador P. Lopez (Libreria Manila Filatelica, 1934); Dear Devices, Being a First Volume of Familiar Essays in Englishby Certain Filipinos (N. p., 1933); and the 1935 Quill, the Literary Yearbook of the University of Sto. Tomas, edited by Narciso G. Reyes. I’ll say more about these other seminal works later, as they’re truly invaluable glimpses into our earliest impulses as writers in English (and I have to wonder, if this was just Vol. 1, what Vol. 2 was like, if any).

Friendship aside, Jimmy must also have known that I was in a better position to take care of the volume, whose first 80 pages or so—almost the entire Dato book—had been torn, not just detached, from the spine by that infernal chemistry I described earlier. So I sent it to my restorer, who patiently mended each torn and fragile page with Japanese paper. Like my other jewels, this book will find its way to the UP Library at some point, now renewed for another generation of readers and scholars.

 

Penman No. 299: Books with Back Stories (2)

 

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Penman for Monday, April 23, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about Philippine-related books I’ve come across online with stories to tell beyond what their pages contained. There was that facsimile of the Doctrina Christiana, for example, signed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, the man who donated the world’s only known copy of the 1593 volume to the Library of Congress.

I also said that quite often, I don’t end up buying the book for one reason or another (usually and predictably financial), but I take note anyway of that particular book’s special appeal. I might leave it on my eBay “watch” list for a week while I mull over whether or not to spend any serious money on it, and then I’ll likely decide that the curiosity value just isn’t worth the cash out or the shelf space, which could go to a worthier recipient.

One of those almost-bought books was William D. Boyce’s The Philippine Islands, published in 1914 by Rand McNally. There was a swell of these books at the turn of the century following the American invasion and annexation of the Philippines, which their writers proudly touted as one of the US’ “new possessions.” Part travelogue, part political tract, these reports from the exotic East not only satisfied the curiosity of Americans who had never ventured out of their home states but also advanced the imperialist agenda. In his introduction (you can read the whole text for free online), Boyce—the millionaire-founder of the Boy Scouts of America—huffed that “It is my belief that if readers will carefully weigh and consider what follows in these pages, they will be aided to a larger view of the value of the Philippines, and realize how unjust and unjust it would be to cut adrift these half-civilized children of nature, trusting alone to luck that they may swim rather than sink in the sea of difficulties that surround the most hazardous of human tasks—self-government.” He was, he declared, squarely against those like Mark Twain seeking “to force these valuable Islands out of the hands of their real owners—the American people.”

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It helps sell books to give your chapters titles like “The Dog-Eating Igorots” and “Blood-Soaked Jolo,” but what drew me to this particular copy was the seller’s note that the book was inscribed to one Rev. Joseph Casey, and signed “Truly W. D. Boyce, S. S. Lusitania Feb 3rd1915.” That was just three months before a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in the Atlantic, helping push America into another war. I was intrigued, but in the end, I passed—I already had too many of these triumphal tributes to American imperialism on my shelves, and my $60 could go to better and less aggravating fare.

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More amusing—but also troubling in its own way—was a book I didn’t even know existed: the paperback edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn (Little Brown, 1947), reissued in 1952 by Popular Library and retitled the The Lost Ones. As if the subtitle “A Surging Novel of Passion and Hate” wasn’t suggestive enough, this paperback sported a racy cover with a seduction scene straight out of a femme-fatale noir film of the period. Blithely (but wisely, market-wise) disregarding the complexity of the relationship between Carding and his wife Lucia, the back-cover blurb goes straight to and quotes the book’s purplest portion:

“’It’s a LARGE bed…’ Rosita smiled wickedly at Carding from the pillow. She wore nothing but a sheer slip, and that was hiked above her rounded white thighs. ‘But I’m married,’ Carding told her, clenching his big hands, trying to tear his eyes away from her. Rosita shrugged. ‘You should have thought of that last night,’ she drawled. ‘Now it’s too late. I could never let you go now, Carding.’ She put a cigarette in her mouth. ‘Bend down,’ she said, ‘and give me a light.’ He got the matches in his trembling hands and leaned far over the bed. Her arms circled his neck like two bands of steel, tumbling her toward him. He was married—but he was a man!”

I also passed on the book, preferring the canonical high seriousness of my first edition, but it was a good reminder that, long before they joined the canon, many books were sold—had to be sold—as popular entertainment. There’s probably no better example of this than a two-volume, paperback edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, published in Barcelona in 1911 by Maucci, with covers that one would be hard put to associate with Crisostomo Ibarra (the blonde looks particularly unnerving). I don’t know how many copies were printed and sold, but this was just one of many popular editions of the Noli and Fili that came out in Spain within a decade or so of Rizal’s execution—his revenge from the grave, when you come to think of it. This colorful Fili, I happily got.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel  Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he  would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at  our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer   in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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Penman No. 291: A Big Boost for Translation

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Penman for Monday, February 19, 2018

 

 

THIS YEAR marks the 40thanniversary of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing, which was established by the UP Board of Regents in 1978 as the Creative Writing Center. I had just returned to UP as an English major after dropping out for ten years when I was taken in by the CWC in the early 1980s as its fellow for drama (I was better known then as a playwright and screenwriter in Filipino than as a fictionist in English).

For a young writer on the verge of his first book, there was nothing more exhilarating than sitting at the feet of the masters—Franz Arcellana, Alex Hufana, and Amel Bonifacio, among many others; Nick Joaquin and Ben Santos came by now and then for the writers’ workshops, and I grabbed the opportunity to have my books signed and to pick their brains, or merely to breathe the same air, thinking that I could imbibe a whiff of their magic.

Since then, the ICW (as it was renamed in 2002) has been at the forefront of developing Philippine literary culture. Its fellows, associates, and advisers number among the most well-regarded writers in the country, including four National Artists for Literature—Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez, Virgilio Almario, and Bienvenido Lumbera. Most of the best writers from all over the country today—be it in Filipino, English, and the regional languages—have at one time or another passed through the doors of the ICW, through the UP National Writers Workshop that UP has held every summer since 1965, even before the CWC/ICW was born. I daresay that there’s no other program that UP has run for as long, without fail, for over half of its nearly 110 years of existence, and that has been as influential in the shaping of the Filipino creative mind.

I was privileged to lead the ICW as its director for three terms, and building on the work of my predecessors (who included, aside from the aforementioned stalwarts, Jimmy Abad, Roger Sikat, Virgilio Almario, Jing Hidalgo, and Vim Nadera, and after me Roland Tolentino), the UPICW expanded its reach over that period. We upgraded the writers’ workshop to cater to mid-career writers, opened a portal to Philippine literature at panitikan.com.ph, published the country’s premier literary journal Likhaan, gave out the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, conducted the Panayam lecture series, and chronicled the lives and thoughts of our best writers under the Akdang Buhay series. We celebrate the literary year every December with a big program at Writers’ Night.

That’s more than any university in the Philippines—indeed in Asia—has done for creative writing, establishing the UPICW as the regional leader in its field. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve undertaken even more new projects these past two years, supported by UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research (EIDR) program.

For example, we’ve conducted Interdisciplinary Book Forums devoted to topics as diverse as tattooing, speculative fiction, and colonial medicine. We’ve also expanded our outreach beyond the mid-career workshop to include the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Workshop for beginning writers, the Bienvenido Lumbera Translators’ Seminar, and the Gemino Abad Teaching Seminar. These last two seminars are aimed at teachers of literature and creative writing, meant to equip them with better skills and insights in handling their courses.

Last February 8-10, we held the first Saling-Panitik: Palihang Bienvenido Lumbera at the UP Hotel under the directorship of ICW Fellow Joey Baquiran. Fifty participants from Bicol, Pangasinan, the Ilocos region, and Metro Manila listened to lectures by respected translation practitioners Bienvenido Lumbera, Marne Kilates, and Mike Coroza.

In their addresses, Bien Lumbera emphasized that literature and its translation in several Philippine languages is at the heart of creating the nation; Marne Kilates extolled St. Jerome as the patron saint of translation; and Mike Coroza argued that a foreign text is dead until its translation comes along for a new audience.

The participants appreciated the hands-on approach of the seminar—facilitated by Pangasinense scholar Marot Flores, Bicol writer Niles Jordan Breis, Iloco expert Junley Lazaga, and Filipino dramaturg Vlad Gonzales—whereby they were assigned texts in their respective languages, English, and Filipino, which they then translated into several versions. For example, the Ilocano group rendered Edith Tiempo’s much-loved poem “Bonsai” into Iloco. The exercises aimed to improve the participants’ translation skills which they can employ in the K-12 literature subjects which they teach in senior high school.

We’re still a long way from developing the corps of literary translators that we’re going to need if we want Philippine literature (other than English) to break into the global stage. But seminars like this are a big step forward, at least in terms of drawing attention to the importance of translation not just in literature but in society and nation-building itself.

And we have the UPICW to thank for it, as well as everyone who’s contributed to keeping it up and running for 40 years.

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)