Penman No. 390: Faulkner in Manila

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2020

 

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote about the visit to Manila in 1951 of the American writer Wallace Stegner, mentioning that ten years earlier, he had been preceded by the even more celebrated Ernest Hemingway. I also said that they were followed in August 1955 by yet another titan of American literature, the 1949 Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner—a visit I’d first learned about by staring at a small poster from that event on the wall of the old Creative Writing Center in UP back in the 1980s.

That poster, wall, and center sadly burned down with the Faculty Center fire four years ago, but I’ve always been intrigued by what brought these big-name authors over to our shores, and what they possibly could have told their local counterparts (there’s a picture somewhere of a very young and very short NVM Gonzalez getting the autograph of a hulking Hemingway).

Hemingway was stopping over on his way to China; Stegner was brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation; and—thanks to a clipping and other materials sent by my Washington, DC-based friend, Dr. Erwin Tiongson—we know now that Faulkner came here courtesy of the US Department of State, which sent their prize author on a tour of Asia, presumably to foster peace and goodwill during the Cold War. (Interestingly, Faulkner’s wife Estelle had visited Manila the year before, and would write:  “The artificially induced gaiety of the Far East is very pronounced here—a feverish clutching at nothing that is little short of terrifying—As I sit here now, looking out on Manila Bay with its warships and carriers—every one of them ready for instant action—I feel insecurity verging on panic.”)

William Faulkner may have been a giant in his time, but to young readers today weaned on Gaiman and Murakami, he might as well be as remote a figure as W. Somerset Maugham or Henry James. Some may have come across his classic short story “A Rose for Emily,” and a luckier few his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and Light in August. As a fictionist, he was chiefly known for his use of the “stream of consciousness” technique that gave even his lowliest characters an ability to articulate their deepest and most complex thoughts and emotions.

But what did Faulkner have to say to his Filipino audience? I found the answer by locating the book Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York: Random House, 1968, edited by James Meriwether and Michael Milgate), which has a whole chapter on “Faulkner in Manila,” based on transcripts of Faulkner’s talks published earlier by the Philippine Writers League. 

There’s a short but charming documentary on YouTube  where you can see him at home in Oxford, Mississippi in 1952 and listen to his soft, somewhat cigar-burnt voice, and you can imagine yourself sitting in the audience in Manila in 1955, as he imparts these notions, among many others:

“I think that there is a great deal of beauty in any national language, national literature. But that tradition of literature must still be furthered more so that it can meet and can give and take from other national literary traditions. But by all means develop one’s own because there is a certain portion in the legends, the customs of any people, that are valuable, and the best way to get them into a universal literature is to bring them first into a national literature…. Nobody should turn his back on his own tradition, his own language, his own culture, to assume a foreign one. Let his own and the foreign meet and produce a universal one.”

“The writer must believe always in people, in freedom; he must believe that man must be free in order to create the art; and art is in my opinion one of the most important factors in human life because it has been art, literature, folklore, music, painting which have been the record of man’s rise from his beginnings. It is the writer’s duty to show that man has an immortal soul…. A writer’s job is not simply to get books printed but to find the truth, the fundamental truth…. I think that the setting of a novel is just incidental, that the novelist is writing about truth. I mean by truth the things that are true to all people, which are love, friendship, courage, fear, greed; that he writes in the tongue which he knows, which happens to be the tongue of his own native land…. I write about American Mississippi simply because that is what I know best.”

“There is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of saying what one thinks. One must have integrity to know the truth, to believe the truth, to speak the truth, for the sake of truth, not for the sake of aggrandizement or profit or policy, but the truth because it is true.”

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Penman No. 387: Wallace Stegner in Manila

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2020

LIKE MANY of you, I’ve spent much of the lockdown opening boxes and sorting out files I haven’t touched in years. As a certified pack rat, I keep papers and other effects going back to my grade school years, so my periodic shakedowns inevitably turn up things I never knew I had, or that I’d completely forgotten about. Last month’s haul included our wedding pictures from 1974, a huge picture book of Paris from 1890, and prints from artist-friends like Orly Castillo, Joel Soliven, and the late Lito Mayo. 

So amusing and engrossing were these finds that I almost missed a frayed copy of The Literary Apprentice1951, published by the UP Writers Club and edited by two young writers, Raul R. Ingles and S. V. Epistola. I had the privilege of knowing both men when they were still alive back in the 1980s, by which time they had become venerable professors in UP. In 1951, Ingles was only 22, Epistola 26, young bucks who were already rendering literary judgment on their peers and seniors (such as Ingles’ estimation of Zoilo Galang, our first novelist in English (Child of Sorrow, 1921) of whom he writes: “The other novel (of 1950) was For Dreams Must Die by Zoilo Galang, who blundered into the literary scene. Galang was a romantic novelist of the 1920s. His mushy prose dates farther back….” That pungent style of commentary was apparently the order of the day, as elsewhere in the issue we find Homero Ch. Veloso, touted to be “UP’s most renowned poet of the past decade,” being hacked at the knees by the expatriate Jose Garcia Villa, who writes that “I think he is completely valueless; however serious he was in his esthetic and intellectual life, his writing is utterly inchoate, unformed, and ill-written….”

But what really caught my eye in this issue (where also, incidentally, Villa’s “The Bashful One” appears, among other, uhm, essentially wordless poems) was a report on the recent visit to Manila of Wallace Stegner, who had been brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation in January 1951 to deliver eight lectures, one of which touched on his impressions of Filipino writing (but only in English, of course).

Very few people, even among writers, would recognize the name these days, but Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was a renowned American novelist who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. His name rang a bell because of two things. First, starting in 1946, Stanford University has offered the two-year Stegner Fellowship in creative writing, among the world’s prize fellowships for writers, whose recipients have included at least three Filipinos: the poets Valdemar Olaguer (1950) and Fidelito Cortes (1985) and the Fil-Am fictionist Lysley Tenorio (2000). Second, as luck would have it, I actually met Stegner when he visited my graduate writing class at the University of Michigan in October 1986; sadly I don’t remember much of that visit beyond an old man in a tan overcoat, as our classes had barely begun and I was still dizzy with loneliness and awe. 

Stegner’s 1951 sortie to Manila also fell in between visits by two other notable writers from America. The first was Ernest Hemingway, who came twice in 1941, in February and May, on his way to and from China with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. I received a note last month from my friend and fellow history buff in Washington, Erwin Tiongson, who found a report from The Tribune of May 13, 1941 about Hemingway being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated P500 to a fund for the victims.

Another prominent visitor was William Faulkner, who came to Manila in 1955. I recall a small poster commemorating that visit on the wall of the UPICW in the old Faculty Center before it burned down. There are records of what Faulkner did and said then—elsewhere, so I still have to find them. In the library of Stanford University is an 18-page illustrated document from 1956 published by the Philippine Writers Association titled “Faulkner on Truth and Freedom. Excerpts from tape recordings of remarks made by William Faulkner during his recent Manila visit,” but it’s only available on-site. More tantalizingly, there’s an article titled “Faulkner in Manila—1955” in Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 edited by James Meriweather and published by Random House in 1968.

So what did Wallace Stegner have to say to his Filipino audience in 1951? He deplored the lack of novelists, for one thing. “The situation is understandable because writing a novel requires the investment of about a year’s labor, the loss of productive activity in other directions, and an attendant publishing risk,” noted the article, which went on: “The Filipino short story, Dr. Stegner observed, is more on the side of the sketch: it is a slice or cross-section rather than a well-rounded whole. Sometimes the story ends; sometimes it just stops…. The Filipino writer rushes to print because he has no other alternative. He gets published easily, even on the second draft, and gets paid just the same. The result is an early sense of maturity which deceives the writer: there is nothing more to test him, to give him obstacles to get over and sharpen his writing ability. Thus, currently published stories need to be run ten times more through the typewriter to straighten out the diction and the style, to fill out the sketchiness, to clarify the characters and the moods, to smooth out all the things that make a short story.”

Funny, I thought, finding that in a 70-year-old journal, when I’d been telling my students the same thing.

Penman No. 386: History and Hysteria

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Penman for Monday, April 27, 2020

 

IT MUST be part of human nature, in times of disaster or adversity, to seek some consolation or refuge in the past, more specifically in the misfortunes of others. It’s a kind of Schadenfreude across generations rather than distance, although not so much to derive pleasure as reassurance to the effect that, in time, all miseries have an end, all crises can be survived.

I have to admit that—interned for a month with the TV, the laptop, and my books for company—I’ve acquired a rather morbid interest in discovering what other people went through at other times, faced with the enormity of mysterious and murderous disease. We know by now how Covid-19 has brought out the best and the worst in us, stoking our deepest fears even as we marvel at the courage and generosity of a relative few. We—especially those of us in the emotionally vulnerable middle class—cringe at the possibility that desperation will lead to chaos.

History sadly provides little comfort in that respect. Awful things do happen in awful times, chiefly thievery and murder, although not always by the people you’d expect.

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Writing about plague-hit Florence in the 1630s in Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence, (U. of California Press, 1989), Giulia Calvi noted that “Up to this point, the most surprising theme is how little fear contagion caused. In overcrowded houses, stinking alleys, and rooms that still held the dead, both actually and in memory, neighbors, relatives, and friends came and went—entering, stealing, taking things at random, and getting caught. They passed items from hand to hand, through windows and doors, wells and gratings; they knocked down house walls, climbed garden walls, and even lowered goods by rope from rooftops. The epidemic appeared to generate every emotion save fear of death.”

But a subtler kind of theft was also happening, with the emergence of medical amateurs, charlatans, and quacks offering all kinds of cures, from potions tried out in previous epidemics such as “simple curative roots and coral powder” to a recipe for “three black spiders, three serpents, three deaf vipers, three frogs, ten tarantulas, and fifty scorpions and other poisonous animals—alive, if possible—over a small flame like one used for soap or stew.” A thriving guild of doctors and herbalists controlled and approved the sale of these prescriptions on the street—for a fee, of course, evading which cost the offender a hefty fine.

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Hysteria bred by ignorance also led to wanton killing, as in 1820, when cholera and xenophobia led to the “Massacre at Manilla” of English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese nationals reported on in my 1822 copy of The Atheneum, a Boston-based magazine. It’s a grisly account echoed by the adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere in his book published more than 30 years later:

“I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines. On the 9th October, 1820, the anniversary of my departure from France, a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite. Poor Dibard, the captain of the Cultivateur, was one of the first victims. Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed.”

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But as dramatic as these events were, the real tragedy was that the plague quietly targeted its victims, and more often chose the poor. Early in January 1900, reports of bubonic plague began coming out of Manila, such as this account in a San Francisco newspaper: “The bubonic plague is yet sporadic. There have been six cases and four deaths. Preparations are being made to establish hospitals and quarantine. Great numbers of provincial natives are coming to Manila, with whom the city is overcrowded, the increase in accommodations being inadequate. The rice necessary for foodstuffs is more expensive than at any period during the last twelve years. The plague is dangerous to the overcrowded, unfed and unwashed natives and Chinese.”

A lab report such as the one excerpted below (from The Plague: Bacteriology, Morbid Anatomy, and Histopathology, Including a Consideration of Insects as Plague Carriers by Maximilian Herzog, MD, published in Manila by the Bureau of Public Printing, 1904) may have been clinically precise, but the sadness of a child wasted by the lice (pediculi) common to her station is inescapable:

“The body of a female child, 9 to 10 years of age, well developed. Post-mortem rigidity strong…. Before the body had been opened, three pediculi were picked up from the scalp with sterile forceps and dropped first into an empty sterile test tube and later into three flasks containing 50 cubic centimeters of sterile, slightly alkaline bouillon…. Inquiries were made as to the possibility of the girl’s having been infested with pediculi from someone living in an infected district.”

We learn that disease will ravage and kill the body, but also that, in the long run, disease and even death itself can be defeated—with knowledge, understanding, and willful compassion.

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Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

James_Scott_collage.jpegPenman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 194: A Tree Grows at the Met

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Penman for Monday, April 4, 2016

 

 

THE FIRST and last time I saw a show at the Manila Metropolitan Theater must have been in the 1990s, for a production of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” The theater was in fine shape then, and I recall being as enthralled by the place itself as by the spectacle onstage.

As a young boy in the early ‘60s, my father had worked at the old Department of Public Works building across Plaza Lawton (before they became the Post Office and Liwasang Bonifacio), and I had often tagged along to play with his red-and-blue pencils and his swivel chair. The most entrancing element in that locale, truth to tell, was the giant pot above the old Insular Ice Plant that spewed what seemed to be a steady stream of boiling water into a waiting coffee cup; but my eyes would stray to the strange pinkish building in the distance and I would wonder what went on there and what it held.

I got my answer, thanks to Nick Joaquin, but a few Sundays ago, I had an even more amazing opportunity to know the Met more intimately than I would ever have imagined. Sadly the intimacy was that which might exist between a doctor and a patient, like a probe of cold steel into some tubercular organ.

My wife Beng belongs to Kasibulan, a group of women artists, and they had been invited to do a sketching session at the old theater that Sunday morning, alongside a cleanup operation to be undertaken by volunteers. Did I want to come along, perhaps to take pictures, or at least hold bags and run errands for the ladies as they drew arches and vanishing points? Of course I did.

But before I go any further, especially for the benefit of our millennial readers, let me give a backgrounder on the Met and its sorry fate.

When the Manila Metropolitan Theater opened on December 10, 1931, it was an architectural wonder to behold and to step into—an Oriental palace in pink coral, crowned by exquisite minarets, statues, sculpture, and tilework. The overall style was Art Deco, the rage at the time, spilling over from the West but adapted to its new setting in the East. It could seat almost 1,700 people, and it had been put together and adorned by some of Manila’s finest architectural and artistic talents—designed by Juan Marcos Arellano, built by Pedro Siochi and Co., and decorated by the Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, the sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, the future National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, and by Juan Arellano’s brother Arcadio.

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Erected near the site of its predecessor, the Teatro del Principe Alfonso XII which burned down in 1867, the Metropolitan was meant to be the city’s premier cultural venue, a showcase of the Filipino artistic genius. In its heyday, it hosted celebrated singers such as Jovita Fuentes and Atang de la Rama; from highbrow opera to the more popular zarzuela and vaudeville, the Met had the best to offer. Though damaged during the war, it was rebuilt and continued to be a haven for artists and entertainers until it began to decline in the 1960s, as other venues—and the growth of moviehouses in such places as Avenida Rizal, Escolta, and Cubao, followed by the establishment of the posh and modern Cultural Center—gained primacy among audiences.

At one point or other in its slide to abject decrepitude, the Met became a boxing arena, a movie set, a martial arts studio, a gay bar, an ice cream parlor, a TV stage, and a refuge for the homeless, among other incarnations. In 1978, Imelda Marcos took an interest and had the theater restored to its old glory, but then it fell again into disrepair, and was shut down in 1996 in a wrangle over ownership between the city government and the GSIS. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Mayor Fred Lim renovated and reopened it in 2010, when it was declared a “National Treasure” by the National Museum, but yet again it succumbed to politics, bureaucracy, and benign neglect; after a concert by the rock band Wolfgang in mid-2011, it was locked up by the GSIS.

In July last year, the ownership question was finally settled with the GSIS selling the property off to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and shortly after the NCCA received P270 million from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for a fourth and hopefully final restoration, which the NCCA expects to complete by 2017.

It was this Met that we entered that Sunday. We were greeted by my UP colleague and one of the restoration project’s consultant-architects, Gerard Lico, who assigned two young but very capable juniors to guide our group on an all-access tour of the building. The lobby was buzzing with the enthusiasm of student volunteers from National University who, after an orientation and a safety briefing, filed into the structure behind their team leaders.

We followed them into a dark and cavernous hulk (the electricity had yet to be brought back), and encountered a touching mix of fragility and resilience. The Met had to be cleaned prior to restoration, and thus we were being privileged to see it at its most hapless state. There was dust and rust everywhere, and the wooden floorboards, reduced to a pulp, were crumbling beneath our feet.

Even so it demanded attention and respect, and we trod slowly, reverentially. Through the squalor emanated a lingering magnificence—the echoes of long-stilled operas, the footfalls of performers scurrying down the corridors. In one room was a tangled mass of costumes—a sailor outfit unmistakably from The Sound of Music—and when we stepped out onto the broad stage, you almost expected the spotlights to burst into life and the phantom audience to roar in approval. There was a hole in the stage floor and water in the orchestra pit, but nothing, it seemed, beyond repair, beyond human care.

Out on the roofdeck, beneath the Moorish spires and the batik-inspired tiles, a small tree had sunk its rope-like roots into the masonry. I found myself hoping that it would be spared the restorer’s saw. Reprieves beget reprieves, and it would provide a fine organic testament to the Metropolitan’s endurance. (See more pics from our walking tour here.)

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Penman No. 179: Pedestrian Pleasures

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Penman for Monday, December 21, 2015

 

THERE’S NOTHING better we’d like to do on a weekend—unless we’re running off to some southern island or parts beyond—than to have a foot massage from our suki Tonton branch on West Avenue before taking in a movie and a Chinese or ramen dinner at Trinoma. In fact, we don’t even wait for the weekend to indulge ourselves in these pedestrian pleasures, but do this routine on a Tuesday and then again on a Thursday, whenever the spirit moves us.

Every other month or so, we do something special—we go down to Sta. Cruz (my students no longer have any idea where these districts and streets around Quiapo are), have a fried-chicken lunch at Ramon Lee’s, then check out our favorite ukay-ukay and Japanese-surplus shops on Avenida Rizal, happily carting home several bagfuls of glorious junk, with as much pleasure as we would’ve gotten from the flea markets of New York or Paris.

Beng and I cheerfully acknowledge that this must be one of the signs of aging—settling into a fairly small and thoroughly familiar comfort zone, and stepping out of it just often enough to keep things lively and to refresh the horizon. Or maybe I’m mainly speaking for myself, because Beng’s always been far more adventurous than me, especially culinarily speaking, and now and then exhales a wistful longing for some Indian food (which flusters me, because I can’t stand curry, recognizing only salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and soy sauce in the kingdom of spices and flavors).

The simple explanation is, ours is a generation used to walking a lot. And it wasn’t as if we had a choice. We grew up without cars—the richer kids had them, but not us—and even getting to the jeepney or bus stop meant walking. I remember, as a boy of nine or ten, walking from our rented place on Halcon Street along Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to what was then Highway 54 (EDSA to you younger ones), crossing the highway, and then taking the bus to Gilmore Avenue, crossing the highway again, and walking several blocks to La Salle Green Hills (“Greenhills” was spelled as two words then)—lugging my heavy bag of books and notebooks, whose cheap unpadded leather cut into my hands. In the afternoon, I would do the same thing all over again, in reverse, unless a chauffeured classmate took pity on me and gave me a ride.

But as torturous as that routine was, it was nothing compared to the literally kilometric walks that our elders took. One of my favorite walking stories is that of the late NVM Gonzalez, who walked many kilometers from their barrio in Mindoro to the poblacion, where he could type his manuscripts in the municipio, making the long trek back in the afternoon (and when his contributions returned months later, rejected by some editor, his father would kid him and say, “Your stories are like homing pigeons!”). That’s a story I like to tell my writing students, who—with the fanciest computers and the Internet at their fingertips—will still sometimes complain about not having “enough material” or “enough time” to produce their first drafts.

Another story I recall having read somewhere involves Bienvenido Santos and Diosdado Macagapagal, who—as students of the University of the Philippines back when it was just on Padre Faura Street in Manila—walked to school together from their lodgings in Tondo. And until his death some years ago, my uncle Juan, who must have been in his nineties, thought nothing of walking the seven kilometers of mountain road between his home in Guinbirayan to the poblacion of Sta. Fe in Romblon, just to deposit the cash in his pocket to his savings account.

I myself took to walking for my health a few years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and had to undergo a radical lifestyle change. Three or four laps around the UP Oval every day, Broadway blaring in my ears, quickly took care of the problem; I lost 45 pounds in five months (some of which I’ve regained since then, but my blood stats still look good).

But walking, of course, is never just a chore and never just exercise to the willful and the observant. I’ve used my long walks around campus as thinking time, composing paragraphs in my head, mulling over turns of phrase and gentler ways of expressing unpleasant truths (the sad corollaries of holding an administrative post). I enjoy the scenery—both natural and human—and store striking details, scenes, and vignettes in my head that I can use for my stories. Once, walking towards the Carbon market in Cebu, I found myself on a street full of sellers of cut flowers, in the midst of which emerged a dark, wiry man, bare from the waist up, heaving over his head a huge basket full of red roses—a veritable Charles Atlas, bearing the weight of all that beauty. That haunting image became the germ of a story I would title “Delivery,” the tale of a lie and its terrible if unintended consequences.

And many of my sharpest memories of my foreign sorties are from long walks taken on fabled boulevards and strange alleyways, very often leading to unexpected discoveries off the tourist guidebooks: a pen shop in Edinburgh, a Filipina hotel worker taking a quick puff from a balcony in Como, a pair of fierce guard dogs prowling the perimeter of a mansion in Johannesburg, beneath a copious spray of jacaranda blossoms.

So it was in this quest of adventure that Beng and I took her sister Jana and our niece Eia on a walking tour of downtown Manila a couple of weeks ago (a zone my friend Krip Yuson affectionately calls “the armpit of the city”), to reacquaint them—newly returned from many years in New York—with home, in all of its bewildering, exasperating, ammoniac intensity. We took them to our Japanese-surplus suki on Avenida and then to lunch at Ramon Lee, before essaying Escolta and the Art-Deco innards of the First United Building; we lamented the loss by fire of the old Savory Restaurant, but pressed on to Chinatown for bagfuls of hopia and ma chang (sampling the goodies both at Polland and Eng Bee Tin) before turning into Ongpin and re-emerging into Sta. Cruz and its amalgam of gold and grime.

It was a day well spent, much of it on foot, and while our soles may have complained, our spirits tingled with reawakened excitement.

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Penman No. 172: Going Against the Grain

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Penman for Monday, October 26, 2015

I WAS asked to give the first keynote last week at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators at the University of the Philippines, on the conference theme of “against the grain,” and here’s part of what I said:

The Filipino writer is among the freest in the world as far as self-expression is concerned; but the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013.

Creative writing won’t pay you much, but you can say whatever you want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a dangerous enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

…. We have one of the region’s richest concentrations of writers, and very likely the region’s most strongly developed systems for the development of new writers; but these writers have precious few readers.

We have never lacked for writers, and likely never will. The Filipino writing community is very much alive, producing new work not only in English but in Filipino and in many regional languages.

Within the region, we can claim to have the oldest, the longest-running, and possibly the most comprehensive writing programs—not just writers’ workshops which go back 50 years, but also degree programs from the BA to the PhD in several major universities. The Palanca Awards, which are handed out every year to the best work in many categories and several languages, have been running now for 65 straight years.

New young writers will find it easier to break out and get noticed by their peers and seniors here than in many other places, because, while Filipinos respect their elders, and everyone above 40 is a “Sir” or a “Ma’am,” we do not have the kind of master-apprentice, or senior-junior relationship that exists elsewhere. You do not need a senior’s validation or sponsorship to advance; indeed you might move forward much faster by slaying a literary father or two.

But for all the literary talent we think we have, it can be argued that creative writers really don’t matter much in Philippine politics today—certainly not as much they used to—because, to be hyperbolic about it, no one reads, no one buys books, and no one understands nor cares what we’re doing.

It’s a sad fact that in a country of 100 million people, with a literacy rate of about 97%, a first printing for a new novel or book of stories will likely run to no more 1,000 copies—which will take about a year to sell, and earn the author a maximum of about P50,000 (about US$1,000) for a few years’ work—good enough for a new iPhone. There’s no such thing as a professional novelist or playwright in the Philippines, which makes it easier for writers of any worth to be sidetracked or co-opted by the government or by industry.

It’s ironic that Philippine literature’s political edge should be blunted not by timidity nor by censorship but by sheer market forces. The simplest reason many Filipinos don’t buy books has to be poverty, with the price of an average paperback being higher than the minimum daily wage.

But perhaps we writers ourselves are also to blame, for distancing ourselves from the mainstream of popular discourse. Politics is nothing if not the domain of the popular, and the very fact that many of us write in English is already the most distancing of these mechanisms. The question of language has always been a heavily political issue in multilingual Philippines, where some regionalists still resent the choice of Tagalog as the basis of the new national language Filipino in 1935, and where English is reacquiring its prominence not only as the lingua franca and the language of the elite but as our economic ticket to the burgeoning global call-center industry.

Political change in the Philippines has historically been led by the middle and upper classes, from the Revolution against Spain of 1896 to the anti-Marcos struggle of the 1970s and the 1980s to the Edsa uprisings of 1986 and 2001. Therefore, one might argue that English is, in fact, the language of reform and revolt in the Philippines in modern times.

But it is this same English-literate middle class—our potential readership—that is the strongest bastion of neocolonialism in the Philippines, blindly infatuated with Hollywood, hip-hop, and Harry Potter, keen on trading the local for the global, opportunistic in its outlook and largely unmindful of the social volcano on the slopes of which it has built its bungalows. As I often remind my fellow Filipino writers, our rivals on the bookshelves are not each other, but J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, Paulo Coelho, and Tom Clancy.

When I return to the two main points I raised—that we are free to speak and to write, but only in politically inconsequential forms; and that we have writers aplenty, but very few readers—I have little choice but to conclude that the main culprit is our self-marginalization through English, and the academicized, Western-oriented mindset the language encourages.

The interesting upside of this unfortunate situation is that—largely untethered from the considerations of commerce and politics—our writers have been free to write their hearts and minds out, producing poetry and fiction of a high quality that, in a double irony, might yet break through to the global market.

The triple irony would be that it sometimes takes the international spotlight for local readers to take notice of native genius. It sounds like wishful thinking, but by being here today, and connecting our literature to yours, we might do enough together to push our literatures to the forefront of our peoples’ consciousness.

But let’s face it: the margins are familiar if not comfortable territory to many of us, not only here but wherever we live and write, as they give us a clearer view of the center. Going against the grain is very much in the grain of how and why we work. And if you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t be here today.

Penman No. 171: All Systems Go for APWT 2015

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Penman for Monday, October 19, 2015

IT’S “ALL systems go” for this year’s edition of the annual Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, which will be held in Manila later this week, from Thursday on to the weekend. As a member of the APWT Board and one of APWT 2015’s convenors, I’m particularly thrilled for the Philippines to be hosting this event, which is the literary equivalent of the APEC, the SEA Games, and let’s throw in The Amazing Race, which it could be a bit of for our foreign guests.

It’s not a competition, of course, and we won’t be signing any treaties or squabbling over territory. In fact, the way we’ve set things up, it’ll be a politician-free zone, which isn’t to say that politics will be off the menu. With topics ranging from “Sex and Sensitivities” and “Criminal Intent” to “Love in the Time of Dissonance” and “Why Publishers Prefer Outsiders,” there’ll be fireworks aplenty in the panel discussions we’ve put together for the three-day conference, which will be held at the Institute of Physics in UP Diliman on Thursday and Friday, before moving to De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas on Saturday.

I’ll be one of four keynote speakers for the conference, and will speak on the conference theme, “Against the Grain,” at UP on Thursday morning, to introduce the Philippines and our culture and literature to the audience, especially our visitors. I’ll be followed the next day by Romesh Gunesekera, the UK-based, Sri Lanka-born Booker Prize finalist who partly grew up in Manila, where his father had worked for the Asian Development Bank. At La Salle on Saturday, the indigenous Australian author Philip McLaren will keynote the meeting, and Jing Hidalgo will close the conference at UST with a talk on the “subversive memory” of women writers.

These 30-minute keynotes will be the exception, however. It’s an APWT hallmark to keep presentations short (no more than 10 minutes max) and informal (no footnoted academic papers on obscure topics, please—and no PowerPoint!). The key phrase here is “writers in conversation,” so we expect easy, freewheeling discussions around the topics given to each panel, with lots of time for audience interaction.

We’re expecting at least 50 foreign participants to join around 100 local authors in APWT 2015. Filipinos have always been well represented at APWT. Its annual meetings had been previously held in Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Perth, and Singapore, and this will be the first time it will be coming to Manila. Next year, we’re planning to hold it in Guangzhou, China.

If you want to meet with fellow writers, translators, publishers, and agents beyond our shores, you can’t do better than to sign up with APWT, a ten-year-old organization that has become the most active and visible network for writers and translators in the region. The great thing about APWT is that it was designed by and for practicing writers above all; while we have many academics, critics, and scholars among our members, theory isn’t our big thing, but practice—engagement with reading publics, dealing with shifting markets, connecting across the globe, adapting to new media, rolling with the political punches. If you’ve written what you think is a terrific novel and want to catch an agent’s or a publisher’s attention, APWT is the place to go.

Speaking of which, this year’s conference will offer six workshops that writers—both budding and accomplished ones—can sign up for, to sharpen their skills or explore new possibilities. You don’t have to attend the full conference to attend these workshops, which will be run by a sterling crew of international authors. Robin Hemley—who used to teach nonfiction at Iowa and now heads the Yale-NUS program in Singapore—will be handling one on “The Art of Memoir Writing”; Xu Xi, who directs the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, will teach fiction writing “with Asian characteristics”; the New Yorker Tim Tomlinson, another frequent Manila visitor, will share “Pitching Tips from the New York Writers Workshop” to help you sell your manuscript, at the same time that poet and editor Ravi Shankar will be teaching his students how to create “timeless verse”; at La Salle, Sally Breen will hold a master class in editing, to address “What Editors Want”; and simultaneously, Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin will employ improvisational techniques to engage participants in “Essaying Manila.”

I strongly urge those inclined among my readers to go out for one or two of these three-hour-long workshops, because you may never get the chance again to study directly with these masters, some of whom have become good friends of mine over the years and whose teaching and writing excellence I can swear to. There’s a fee to pay, but it will be well worth it, and you’ll remember the lessons you’ve learned long after you’ve forgotten how much they cost. Slots are limited, so sign up early. If you can’t pay in US dollars online, you can pay for the conference and/or the workshops at the door, in pesos (at a slightly higher rate of 50-to-1, to cover conversion and remittance charges).

Filipino citizens can attend the full three-day conference at a reduced fee of $40 or P2,000 (for students with IDs of UP, DLSU, and UST, the fee will be just P1,000); the workshops will each cost $40 or P2,000. These fees will include some meals and snacks provided by our generous sponsors and hosts, who include—aside from the three aforementioned universities—the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the British Council, Anvil Publishing, and the Japan Foundation.

For more information and for links to the registration page (again, you can also register and pay at the door), see here: http://apwriters.org/apwt-2015-manila.

See you at the panels!

Penman No. 166: Ernest Meets Nestor

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Penman for Monday, September 14, 2015

A COUPLE of months ago, I wrote a piece here about the Nobel prizewinning novelist Ernest Hemingway’s brief visit to Manila in February 1941. When my friend Dr. Erwin Tiongson read that, he sent me more materials about that brief encounter between the literary titan and his local readers, including a reference to a second visit by Hemingway on May 6, presumably on his way back to the US.

(Now based in Washington, DC and a professor of economics at Georgetown, Erwin was recently in Manila himself with his journalist wife Titchie for a vacation and a series of presentations about their fascinating project of historical sleuthing, which you can find online at https://popdc.wordpress.com. I’ll be writing more next time about the Tiongsons and their meeting with Teresa “Binggay” Montilla, the granddaughter of Philippine Commissioner to Washington Jaime C. de Veyra and his remarkable wife Sofia, about whom the Tiongsons unearthed a trove of interesting historical material.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to share a bit of what Erwin sent me, taken from the American Chamber of Commerce Journal of June 1941, unbylined but attributed to the journal’s publisher and editor, Walter Robb. It’s an account of Hemingway as a man and a regular guy—41 years old, 225 pounds, black-haired and black-eyed, whose Spanish “runs along like a garrulous brook… words never fail him, nor picturesque phrases. He likes singing Basque folk songs and he and the Basques seeing him off on the clipper sang them all the way from the Manila Hotel to Cavite….”

Farther down that article, the reporter notes that “It’s easy to get Hemingway’s autograph, just ask for it and have a pen handy…. He autographed many copies of his book while he was in town. The book has been pirated at Shanghai, of course; when one of these spurious copies, no royalty to Hemingway, came along for autographing, Hemingway grinned and autographed it. He likes to use a standard typewriter in his work, which he does of mornings, but For Whom the Bell Tolls was not written that way: it was written in longhand. Hemingway uses a heavy stub fountain pen and this longhand of his, as bold as sword strokes, but honestly legible and well-spelled, flows across the paper as straight as a line.”

I was, of course, attracted to that passage because it particularly mentioned Hemingway’s pen, which I would have dearly loved to see; but also, it talked about Hemingway signing books, which reminded me of a photograph I adverted to in my earlier column, showing Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez, who in early 1941 would have been no more than 25 years old. I’d seen that picture in NVM’s house in UP when he was alive, and had worried that it might have been lost when the house burned down. But after my piece came out, I was happy to hear from NVM’s youngest daughter Lakshmi that she had posted a copy of it on her Facebook page, and I hope she doesn’t mind if I repost it here—Ernest meets Nestor, you might say.

Speaking of NVM Gonzalez, the literary community marked the centenary of his birth last Tuesday, September 8, in an evening of tributes at the Executive House at the University of the Philippines in Diliman organized by Prof. Adelaida Lucero. NVM, of course, taught with UP—among many other universities here and in the United States—for many years despite the fact that he never completed his bachelor’s degree. As director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, I was asked to say a few words at the testimonial dinner, which was attended by NVM’s widow Narita, and here’s a reconstruction of the remarks I made:

“NVM and I were born only 60 kilometers away from each other in Romblon—he on Romblon Island and I on neighboring Tablas—but also almost 40 years apart, and I never had the good fortune of being his student in UP. It’s actually my wife Beng who’s been closer to the Gonzalezes, having been Narita’s student at UP Elementary. But I had the chance to meet NVM and to enjoy his company when he returned to UP in the 1990s as International Writer-in-Residence under the auspices of what was then the UP Creative Writing Center. I had the honor of drafting his nomination as National Artist, signed by then Dean Josefina Agravante.

“Franz Arcellana was my teacher, and Bienvenido Santos and Greg Brillantes were my literary models; but it was NVM who hung out with us, whom we had fun with in our workshops in Baguio and Davao. And as advanced as he was in years, he was forward-looking and eager to learn. I remember running into him once in what was then the SM North Cyberzone, and I asked him what he was doing there. ‘I’m looking for a book on multimedia!’ he told me with that twinkle in his eyes.

“We didn’t always agree, but the one thing I can say about NVM is that he never threw his weight around, never pulled rank on us his younger associates, never thundered about how much older or more accomplished he was to suggest why he was right and we were wrong, despite his obvious seniority in age, experience, and wisdom. We appreciated that. That’s why, in the foreword to a book of essays by his friends that I edited after his death in 1999, I said that some writers are respected and admired, and others are loved. NVM was both.”

The celebration of NVM’s centenary won’t stop with that dinner—which also saw the launch, by the way, of new books on NVM: his poems, edited by Gemino Abad, and a Filipino translation of Seven Hills Away by Edgardo Maranan, published by the UP Press and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, respectively. At the end of this month, the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature will hold an exhibit of photographs of and works by him. His son Myke, based in the US, is organizing a fiction-writing workshop in January, the first half to take place in Diliman and the other in Mindoro, and the UPICW will be helping Myke out with that project.

It never ceases to amaze me how a web of words (make that a Worldwide Web, these days) can bring people together across the miles and years.

[Photo courtesy of Lakshmi Gonzalez-Yokoyama]