Penman No. 334: A Literary Yearender

 

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Penman for Monday, December 31, 2018

 

TWO BIG events rounded out the literary year for me, both of them related in some way to the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), which not incidentally marked the 40th anniversary of its founding earlier this month.

The first was Writers Night last November 23, effectively an annual reunion and pre-Christmas party of the Filipino literary community. But more than a social bash, Writers Night also marks two important points on the literary calendar: the announcement of the winner of the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award (given in alternating years to books in Filipino and English) and the launch of the latest issue of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature.

Now on its 18thyear, the MGBFBA’s awarding is highly anticipated, not just because of the P50,000 cash prize but also because, miraculously, the UPICW has done a pretty good job of keeping the winner’s name secret until the proverbial opening of the envelope itself. This year’s winner was Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa, published by Adarna Books, which went on to win a National Book Award the very next day.

Rappler’s Margie de Leon describes the work thus: “The first few pages alone of komikera Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa will take your breath away. Depicting local mythology’s creation of the universe, each page is a luscious spread of lively lines and bold colors….The next chapters are a narrative feat, interspersing short stories between pairs of Filipinos and the geological birth of the nation. The tangled tales between each pair of characters serve to personify the actual physical shifts that occurred in our geography millennia ago.”

The second highlight of Writers Night was the launch of the Likhaan Journal, and this year being a milestone, we launched not one but two issues—the regular journal containing 20 of the year’s best and previously unpublished works in Filipino and English, and a similar collection, edited by me, which we called 40@40, featuring new works by our top writers in Filipino and English—the difference being that the 40@40 writers all had some connection to the UPICW as former fellows, panelists, or members of the board.

As I noted in my introduction to the volume, when the UP Creative Writing Center was set up in December 1978, the country was firmly in the grip of martial law, which had been declared in 1972 and six years later had settled into a certain stability, or at least the appearance thereof, buttressed by new governmental institutions such as the Batasang Pambansa, the Ministry of Human Settlements, the Ministry of Public Information, and the National Media Production Center.

Martial law—particularly martial law of “the smiling kind” that the Palace liked to tout—had to create its own fictions, chiefly that Filipinos were free to express themselves and that Philippine culture and literature could find no better sponsor than the present regime, which had after all established the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. The establishment of the UPCWC—which became the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) in 2002—may have been part of that liberal façade, the notion that all was well in the New Society. It began as a small office where university-based writers and their friends converged for spirited chats over smuggled beer and gin (itself an act of subversion, as the university banned such libations), with no defined function graver than running the annual Writers Workshop and the occasional lecture or forum.

But over the years, and especially over the decades after the overthrow of the dictatorship at EDSA, the UPICW has grown into a truly writer- and university-driven institution, overseeing mid-career and novice writers workshops as well as seminars for teachers and translators, running an online portal to Philippine literature at Panitikan.com, conducting outreach programs, representing Philippine writing overseas, and encouraging writing in other Philippine languages beyond Filipino and English.

Even within UP, not too many Filipinos seem to appreciate the fact that the UPICW is a trailblazer and a leader in the region, indeed in all of Asia, in terms of what it does.

This proved true again in 2018’s last big literary event, the annual gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators held December 5-7 at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia. A contingent of seven Filipinos, most of them affiliated with the UPICW, represented the Philippines—possibly the largest national contingent aside from the Australians themselves.

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APWT is the region’s largest and most active literary network, and we hosted its annual conference in 2015. I sit on its advisory board, and I was accompanied in Australia by UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, writers Vlad Gonzales, Luna Sicat Cleto, Marby Villaceran, and Deedle Tomlinson, and my wife Beng. We held a very well attended panel discussion on Philippine literature, which remains a mystery to many of our neighbors who belong to the Commonwealth loop. APWT will move to Macau in 2019, and we expect an even stronger Philippine presence there.

 

Penman No. 77: Writers at Their Best

wn13_1Penman for Monday, December 16, 2013

 

WRITERS’ NIGHT 2013 went off last Dec. 6 in UP Diliman with nary a hitch, thanks to tremendous support from the Philippine writing community (and, of course, from my staff at the Institute of Creative Writing). It was a night of celebration that began early, with the Filipinas Copyright Licensing Society (FILCOLS) holding its general meeting and handing out historic (and substantial!) first checks to Filipino authors whose works had been used with permission in textbooks.

This was followed by the presentation of the 13th Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award, an annual recognition of the best first book by a Filipino author writing in English or Filipino (the award alternates between these two languages, so the award covers publications for the past two years in each language; it was English’s turn this year). This P50,000 prize—established and generously endowed by the Madrigal-Gonzalez family through Atty. Gizela Gonzalez-Montinola—has become another important rite of passage for Filipino writers, and over the years it has gone to such talents as Angelo Lacuesta, Luna Sicat Cleto, F.H. Batacan, Ellen Sicat, Vicente Groyon, Kristian Cordero, Rica Bolipata Santos, Zosimo Quibilan, Adam David, Lualhati Abreu, Lawrence Ypil, and Will P. Ortiz.

The actual awarding is preceded by a lively forum featuring the finalists, who remain unaware of the winner until the end of the ceremony. This year’s board of judges was chaired by prizewinning fictionist Charlson Ong, with poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta and Prof. Shirley O. Lua of De La Salle University as members. It was a banner year for the University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, whose books accounted for five of the six finalists.

The citations that the judges prepared for the finalists were little gems in themselves, so to give you an idea of what our best new writers have been producing, let me quote from those citations:

Daryll Delgado, After the Body Displaces Water (UST Publishing House, 2012): “In After the Body Displaces Water, Daryll Delgado draws upon both romantic and realistic traditions in fiction, the personal as well as the political, to deliver an outstanding debut collection. Here are tales of the post-EDSA uprising generation who navigate through the murky mire of lost certainties, failed expectations, of promise and compromise. Here, water, cleansing, life-giving yet dangerous, is prime element. Water is memory: malleable, mesmeric. It suggests the comfort of the womb and of early death, but must finally give way to the body, to present and authentic self. These stories offer up no easy answers only uneasy angles, uncanny ways of seeing as ‘through a glass darkly.’”

Marc Gaba, Have (Tupelo Press, 2011): “’Stories are about the dropped stitch,’ writes an American fictionist. The dropped stitch interrupts the pattern and disturbs an existing order. To stretch a metaphor: when this happens, a stitch falls off your needle and unravels for several rows beneath the row you are working on. At some point in your writing career, you are going to drop a stitch.
You will forsake what you know for what you don’t know.
Writers less fearless would try to reach that dropped stitch, slide a crochet hook into its loop, and mend a rent in the pattern.
But Gaba’s poems are about the dropped stitch—the one that makes the reader imagine a pattern because it has gone completely missing. His is the stitch that unravels the whole.”

Anna Maria L. Harper, Agueda:
A Ballad of Stone and Wind (UST Publishing House, 2012): “Rare is the Philippine historical novel, rarer still one with a woman main character. Agueda may be an attempt at national allegory, but its richness of detail make it a quite engaging read. Though treading familiar ground, the book visits nooks and crannies of our past usually ignored by historical texts. We catch glimpses of our forebears—rich and poor—heretofore unseen and gain further insight into who and why we are. Who knows, in time, its heroine may become as familiar to readers as the likes of Maria Clara and Salome?”

Neal Imperial, Silver Fish, Hook of Moon (UST Publishing House, 2012): This collection affirms the power of language in all its majestic simplicity and frugality, as if self-denial is a form of art. The seeming effortlessness of the poems’ cadence complements the stream of images and metaphoric turns which seek to stir the mind of the listener, such verses as ‘We hear the silence / of dead birds / combing the wind / for wings / stuffed / in the belly of a gun,’ ‘To love an older woman / is to bleed / on a bed of salt,’ or ‘You are too-much-food / too late…” This engaging work claws at our heart, like ‘the hook of moon.’”

Allan Pastrana, Body Haul (UST Publishing House, 2011): “Called at turns difficult and lyrical, Pastrana’s poetry is deeply personal (and to the casual reader, hard to inhabit). His poems pose a difficult conundrum, for despite their apparent inaccessibility, an internal music moves them. Pastrana must be credited with such precise notation. Each of his themes seem set to an appropriate time signature—nostalgia, desire, childhood, domesticity—each one is given a clipped and particular music. It is music first that draws the reader into the writer’s milieu, uncertain of what he might find there, or if he will find anything at all…. First and last is his music. First and last is music of such virtuosity that Pastrana must be one of our finest poets.”

John Jack Wigley, Falling Into the Manhole: A Memoir (UST Publishing House, 2012): “This selection of essays shows the author’s deep-reflective investigation of his identity, whether as a boy growing up in the City of Angels, as a novice traversing through the muddled metropolis of our sad republic, or as a determined man embarking on a delicate quest in the land of his white forefather, a land deemed an earthly paradise by Spanish conquistadores. The personal narratives are unabashedly candid and sensitive, infused with humor and irony, and peppered with thrilling bits of pop culture. This book is both a delightful and heart-ripping read.”

The winner was Allan Pastrana, of whose work the judges had this further to say: “Like Orpheus’ lyre, Body Haul lures us with its refreshing variations of songs, stories, and tall tales. Like a prophet’s rod, it bestows spirit to birds, forces the word ‘trap’ to speak in three different languages, and illumines a path out of Eden to a re-worlding of stars and love. Pastrana’s kingdom is nonetheless that of a sophisticated intellectual, whose appreciation for music, literature, and the visual arts obtrusively yet gracefully seeps through the many fine verses in the collection.”

The evening’s highlight was an auction of writers’ memorabilia that we held for disaster relief, particularly for writers hard-hit by supertyphoon Yolanda. Beyond their craft, here were writers at their best, donating choice items and dipping liberally into their pockets to help out their fellows.

The money we raised came chiefly from a 1940s Parker Vacumatic fountain pen donated by yours truly (won by Jimmy Abad for P18,000 in spirited bidding over film director Auraeus Solito); a Smith Corona Portable Classic 12 donated by Paolo Manalo (won by a member of the Inkantada Band for P5,500); two manuscripts of works by Gregorio Brillantes and myself (won by Andrea Pasion-Flores for P4,200); and assorted manuscripts, author’s proofs (including that of Soledad’s Sister), and other memorabilia donated by Jimmy Abad and myself (won by rocker-news anchor-novelist-etc. Lourd de Veyra for P6,000). Poet Alan Popa went home with a drawing by fictionist Merlinda Bobis, donated by Chari Lucero, for P2,200. We’d also like to thank our other donors, buyers, and supporters—among them, National Artists Bien Lumbera and Rio Alma, poet Cirilo Bautista, and other writer-friends like Efren Abueg, Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, Alma Miclat, Richard Gappi, Carlo Clemente, Dolores Mose, Francis Quina, Khavn de la Cruz, the NBDB, and the Chancellor’s Office of UP Diliman—for their generosity. We were all winners! See you all again in Writers Night 2014.