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]

Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.

HemNote

One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malacañang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.

Penman No. 140: An Oktoberfest for Writers

Penman for Monday, March 16, 2015

 

FOR THE past several years now, I’ve been actively involved in a regional organization called the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has shaped up to be the liveliest and most active such grouping that I’ve joined. Writers and literary academics can join any number of professional associations and interest groups all over the world—ranging from the venerable and highly respected PEN to the more academically-oriented Modern Languages Association—and each of them will have their individual qualities and strengths, but nothing has worked quite as well for me as APWT.

The difference, I’ve found, is that this is a network that actually works as a network should—members get to know each other and help each other out on matters of both professional and personal concern; many become good friends, so you can always depend on being able to ring up a fellow writer in every port around the region for tea and sympathy. We meet as an organization once a year—it began in India, but has moved around to Hong Kong, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore. The Filipino delegation to these annual conferences has been increasingly large and substantial. Moreover, these participants are much less the familiar, senior faces like me than new, young, aspiring writers eager to establish their own contacts and networks.

This year, for the first time, APWT will be meeting in Manila, from October 22 to 25. As a member of the APWT Board, I’m helping to spread the word this early so Filipino writers can prepare to join the conference and present proposals for presentations at the conference sessions.

APWT 2015 is being spearheaded by the University of the Philippines’ Department of English and Comparative Literature, headed by its very capable chair, Dr. Lily Rose Tope, with funding from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Also providing key support are De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with further assistance from the British Council, Ateneo de Manila University, and Anvil Publishing.

For this year’s conference theme, we chose something close to our contrarian hearts: “Against the Grain: Dissidence, Dissonance, and Difference in Asia-Pacific Writing and Translation.” That’s a mouthful, but just think of going “against the grain” or against the current. Like I wrote in a blurb for the conference, “That theme comes out of several centuries of an other-mindedness that seems to come naturally to Filipinos. We’re very agreeable people, but we love to argue, sometimes just for the sake of it, and value freedom of speech above everything else. That makes for a robust if raucous democracy where there are absolutely no taboos or sacred cows.” In other words, in Manila, we can talk about anything in any way we like—which you can’t necessarily say for our more, uhm, circumspect neighbors.

We’re fortunate to have the Sri Lankan-born and now London-based Booker Prize finalist Romesh Gunesekera among our keynote speakers, especially since Romesh grew up in the Philippines, where his father was one of the founders of the Asian Development Bank. APWT 2015 will open and take place for the first two days in UP Diliman, then move to La Salle and UST on its closing day. (On opening night, Anvil will host a launch and poetry reading at the thematically apt Conspiracy bar on Viasayas Avenue.)

Aside from the main plenaries and readings, there will be at least ten breakout sessions for panels on such possible topics as literature in a time of terror; taboo and transgression; writing violence, writing trauma; transmedial translation (writing across disciplines); publishing outside the center; writing within/without/beyond the canon; regional literatures in a global context; the writing life; and translating Westward, translating in-country. We will also have a special “new voices” session and several workshops with renowned international experts.

So let me lead the call for proposals for presentations by interested Filipino authors. By “presentations,” we mean informal but well-thought-out discussions of literary topics of broad interest lasting no more than 10 minutes. APWT is not the venue for long, narrowly focused academic papers; you may wish to present popularized abstracts of such work, if applicable.

At APWT, people don’t read papers; they talk. We value the idea of writers and translators in conversation—among themselves, and with the audience. For this reason, we’ll make sure that the 10-minute limit will be strictly imposed (and I won’t mind wading in and pulling the plug myself), to allow for a longer and livelier Q&A. We will discourage the use of PowerPoint unless absolutely necessary to minimize setup delays and glitches.

By “proposals,” we mean a paragraph or two about your chosen topic, its significance and possible connection to the theme, and the main points you’d like to raise about it. The broader the appeal of the topic and the sharper the edge, the likelier it will be accepted. Proposals sharing a common thread will be grouped together.

Please provide a brief CV (with a high-resolution photograph, if possible) highlighting your background and expertise, as well as your contact information. Direct all submissions and inquiries to apwt2015@gmail.com. (No deadline has been set yet for proposals, but we’ll close the panels when we have enough of them; simple participation will be open until the conference itself.)

We’d also like to remind potential participants that APWT has no funds for the travel and lodging of participants, and has traditionally subsisted on the private initiative of its members, who are strongly encouraged to seek sponsorships for their participation. A modest conference and membership fee will be collected to help sustain the association’s other activities. We can send individual invitations either upon acceptance of your proposal or upon request. For more information about APWT, visit our website at www.apwriters.org.

See you at APWT 2015!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 8: A Hotel with a View

Penman for Monday, August 13, 2012

A MONTH ago, I was invited out to lunch by Bobby Laurel and his sister Sallie Laurel-Lopez, who both help manage the Lyceum of the Philippines University which was established by their grandfather, the late President Jose P. Laurel, Sr., in Intramuros 60 years ago. I’m writing a biography of Bobby’s and Sallie’s father, the late Sen. Sotero “Teroy” Laurel, and we’d set up the lunch to interview some old Laurel family friends.

The interviews went well, as I’d expected. What came as a pleasant surprise was the venue for our lunch—the Bayleaf Hotel, specifically its 9 Spoons restaurant on the 9th floor. Bayleaf is just a few steps away from the main LPU campus. Externally, the nine-story building blends in with the Spanish colonial architecture of the district; it was an old building acquired from the Licaros family, and subsequently and brilliantly renovated by TI Vasquez Architects & Planners. Its interiors and amenities couldn’t be more modern, with five function rooms that can accommodate up to 500 people, and large LCD TVs and wi-fi access all over the place.

I saw these rooms and the Bayleaf’s suites myself, having asked for a guided tour of the place after a sumptuous lunch at the 9 Spoons (so named after the nine children of Teroy and Lorna Laurel; and before I forget, the crowd favorite at the 9 Spoons lunch buffet—the crunchy bagnet—is to die for). The 57 rooms—which start at around P4,000 a night, including breakfast—are very smartly appointed.

On top—literally—of all these is the Bayleaf’s killer feature, which isn’t even in the building itself: the view. The Bayleaf’s roof deck offers a 360-degree view of Manila Bay, Intramuros, and has quickly become the hotel’s choicest spot. The weather permitting, you could do worse than sit here at sunset with friends, sharing a cold beer.

The Bayleaf’s facilities tie in neatly with the Lyceum’s offerings in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, among its strongest programs today (historically, the school had been known for its Law, Foreign Service, and Journalism programs). LPU President Bobby Laurel, however, clarified that “We’re running Bayleaf as a business first, and as a training ground second. I’d describe it as a 3-4-5 star hotel: 3-star price, 4-star amenities, 5-star service. We got the best people we could find to run it. This is going to be an investment, a learning experience that we can duplicate in the other campuses if we do it right.” An avid and talented amateur photographer, Bobby also did some of the pictures in the hotel and the Cioccolata coffee shop on the ground floor.

The next time you’re in Intramuros and feel like having a hearty lunch or a cool drink at day’s end, give Bayleaf a try. Better yet, stay overnight and enjoy the view. I never thought I could say this about a city whose infernal traffic and grime I’ve resigned myself to embracing, but from the Bayleaf’s roof deck, Manila never looked so good.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF Manila, I don’t get my fellow Manileños who’ve been griping about how badly Manila was portrayed in The Bourne Legacy, with its visual emphasis on the city’s poorer districts. I wonder what they were expecting when the Bourne people came over and said they were going to shoot here. Greenery? Bonifacio High Street? They can get that more cheaply—miles and miles of it—in Southern California.

Of course Manila isn’t all poverty (don’t we know that, every time we ride or drive into one of its gated communities, leaving our pedestrian IDs at the guardhouse), and of course it isn’t fair to portray just one side of things. But movies aren’t about fairness, especially action thrillers with the singleminded purpose of pumping more adrenaline into your bloodstream. They’re about achieving a certain effect, a mood or a backdrop against which the plot can move forward without too many distractions.

If there’s anything to complain about in the movie, it’s how the plot—so rich and complex at the beginning—seems to peter out in the end, after the long and well-executed chase scene. I don’t mean this to be a spoiler, but this movie is begging for a sequel (as if it wasn’t already a sequel to a sequel). Since Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz—who turned in very creditable performances—have already sailed off into the sunset (and more literally than you think), I don’t imagine we’re going to see more of Manila in this franchise’s future. Time to hit the slums of Mumbai?

* * * * *

THE RECENT flood—all the more infuriating to many because it didn’t even have a name—reminded me of my own baptism as a reporter for the Philippines Herald back in 1972. I was 18, a freshman dropout who’d wangled his way into a reportorial job at a broadsheet, realizing the dream of my albeit brief lifetime.

I’d been with the Herald for just a few months writing mainly news features when what would be called the July-August floods of 1972 broke over our heads and turned Manila and much of Central Luzon into a giant bowl of mud soup, like Ondoy a month long. That truly was a downpour of biblical proportions.

I did some research at Public Works and realized that the flood plans for Central Luzon hadn’t been reviewed or revised since 1935. I wrote that story up, and got it into the front page—the first time anything I wrote was ever worth the front page, so I’ve kept the clipping to this day.

But more interesting things were in store for me. I reported for work one morning, only to be told to return that evening and to pack a change of clothes. I was going to be sent out on a Navy ship to cover relief operations in Pangasinan, which was still heavily flooded. The ship turned out to be an LST, a Landing Ship Tank, which seemed to me to be a large metal box floating on the ocean—that’s certainly what it felt like when we sailed in rough waters along the coast that night.

The next morning my photographer and I disembarked in Lingayen Gulf, wading into the water like an invading army, and plunged into the wettest excursion of my life. The US bases were still around, and the folks at Clark had sent a big rubber raft along, and I clambered aboard, half-reporter and half-flood victim, to get stories from the flood. We spent a cold night at the governor’s house amidst bags of relief goods, after I’d phoned in my story to a deskman who took it all down on a typewriter with the phone clenched between his cheek and shoulder (ever wonder how newsrooms worked before cellphones and email?).

The following day an American helicopter arrived, a Jolly Green Giant they might have been using in Vietnam, and we hopped aboard—not knowing that its next stop was Clark Air Force Base. Stepping out of the chopper—smoother than any plane I’d ever flown, although I hadn’t flown too many then—I saw and gawked at all those warbirds on the Clark tarmac and imagined for a minute what it would be like to be transported out of this infernal wetness into some place like California; but I settled for the chocolate cake at the commissary (another word added to my vocabulary).

Sunny California would come into my life eight years later. Back in the office the next day, the desk then sent me out to interview Mrs. Imelda Marcos in Malacañang about the Palace’s relief work. She met me in front of a mountain of Nutribuns. I don’t remember much of what she said—charmed witless, I suppose. What can I say? I was eighteen, with hardly a notion that, just a few weeks down the road, an even darker and longer storm was about to fall all over the islands.