Penman No. 362: Writers in Progress

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Penman for Monday, July 15, 2019

 

I’M ALWAYS happy when people who were my students rise up in their careers and begin to find their own voice and footing—especially as writers, good ones among whom remain few and far between. Each year, the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing gathers the best of these young writing talents under one roof and around one table for the UP National Writers Workshop, the 58th iteration of which took place last week in its traditional venue in Baguio City.

Two of the 12 fellows—each of whom qualified for the advanced workshop by publishing at least one book—were Francis Quina and Sarah Fernando Lumba, both of whom had studied withme at one point or other, and whose thesis defenses I had sat at; both now teach at UP Diliman’s English department.This year’s batch was formidable, with some well-established names on the roster, but I kept an eye out for Francis and Sarah, to see how they were doing after all these years.

All workshop fellows were required to send in a short essay discussing their poetics (what, why, and how they write) along with short excerpts from their works in progress.

Francis said: “Recently, when my first short story collection was picked up by a publisher, the reader who had endorsed my manuscript to be published noted that I wrote about strong female and queer characters…. I’ve only known strong women in my life. And strong queer men and women, too. So I only write what I know. This also is true of the fallible male characters that I write about.

His project Window on the World brings two sisters together—each of them trapped and unhappy in their respective situations—on a plane for a holiday in Korea.

 “I’m scared,” Janine confessed, after they had stowed their bags in the overhead compartment and found their seats. She fumbled with the buckles of the safety belts. Maya knew what Janine meant. She had never been a good flyer, and perhaps because of what had happened to their mother, she never would be.

 “We’re going to be okay,” Maya said, feeling her heart beat faster as the plane began the pre-flight sequence. In front of them, two stewardsa man and a womandemonstrated how to deploy a life jacket in case of emergency landing at sea.

Maya fell asleep before the demonstration ended. She didn’t feel Janine take her hand and squeeze it nervously as the plane roared and slowly tilted upwards as they began their ascent. She didn’t feel the sensation of falling, as her mother did, the moment they left the ground and fate took hold of their future.

Somewhere between the 1,623 miles between Seoul and Manila, Janine nudged her sister awake and told her to look out the window just once, to see how endless the world was. Maya, groggy from her medication and nervousness, obliged and got up from her seat. With her sister, she finally looked at the world the way their mother used to.

Sarah, on the other hand, is working on a comic novel titled Twisted Sisters about martial law and revisionism (our dismaying tendency to forget history and repeat it all over again) set in her hometown of Marikina. “There are two main points that I wish to explore in this novel,” she says. “First, the reasons behind the significant support that Ferdinand Marcos continues to enjoy despite empirical data showing that much oppression had been committed by his regime; and second, the extent to which comic and humorous writing could help a people come to terms with—and even come together after—a collective trauma such as martial law.

She writes: “Metro Manila traffic is a hundred ways to die. You can get hit by a car as you cross the crosswalk. Be dragged to death by a motorcyclist careening through the sidewalk. Squished by two bullish buses. Knifed by a strangler as you wait for a jeep. Knifed inside a UV Express by a smartphone snatcher. Have a heart attack just by watching the taxi meter running continuously even if traffic hasn’t budged in the last thirty minutes. Drop dead just waiting for your Grab ride to arrive. Get choked by fumes inside your car because it’s summer and your AC’s busted and you kept your windows up just so you wouldn’t look poor. Get choked in your car by your husband who snaps because of, well, the traffic. Get choked by a druggie whom you meet in prison after you snap and kill your wife in the car because of, well, the traffic. Drown inside your car because flood levels in the streets rise faster than your speedometer. Get squashed by a derailed train coach overhead. Get assaulted with that mandatory lead pipe under the driver’s seat. Assaulted with an empty My Shaldan Lime canister. Shot by a policeman. By a car owner with a licensed gun. By a car owner with an unlicensed gun. Beaten to death by a pack of heat-stroked, smog-coated, PNP-wannabe MMDA enforcers. By a pedicab driver whose ride you scratched. By a congressman because, wala lang, he’s bored and has clout, and you’re there. Metro Manila traffic is death by asphyxiation. By exhaustion. By utter frustration. You can have an aneurysm just by staring at license plates or the sunburned napes of other passengers for two hours straight. You have become a human pipe bomb, a government imprimatur-ed minefield of nasty. One tiny fuse, one small misstep—ka-boom! Road rage. You are better off taking up smoking as your vice.”

Francis and Sarah, you’re well on your way to authorhood.

 

 

Penman No. 218: History and Irony

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Penman for Monday, September 26, 2016

 

 

I’D NEVER heard of Ramon Cualoping III and Marco Angelo Cabrera until their names were linked to the recent flap involving the use of no less than the Official Gazette in an apparent effort to sanitize the memory of Ferdinand E. Marcos by removing any reference to martial law—you know, the martial law that Marcos invoked to impose his dictatorial rule on his people from 1972 until he was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986. (Yes, he technically lifted martial law in 1981 but he continued to rule with a rubber-stamp legislature.)

Some Googling revealed that Cualoping was an Ateneo Communication Arts graduate, batch 2004, while Cabrera graduated from San Beda in 2013 and interned briefly with the Department of Foreign Affairs; he had also worked for Sen. Bongbong Marcos. Those are both fine backgrounds for jobs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office—just the kind of posting on which many young writers and lawyers aspiring for a political future have cut their teeth—and I can surmise from the dates provided that Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera must be in their mid-30s and mid-20s, respectively—too young, therefore, to have personally known what the Gazette expunged.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a government propagandist myself at an even younger age—19, fresh out of martial law prison. Having dropped out of UP and having worked for the Philippines Herald and Taliba just before martial law, I got a job with the PR section of the National Economic and Development Authority. The irony of going from writing incendiary flyers to trumpeting such new government projects as Pantabangan Dam wasn’t lost on me. But I was getting married and needed a job, and all the old media jobs were gone save for the Express and the Bulletin, so I was thankful for whatever came my way. (I would much later write hundreds of speeches for FVR, among other Presidents and political clients—mostly to pay the rent, occasionally for the sheer privilege—so don’t look at me as some crusading journalist.)

I don’t know what drove Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera to the Palace; I’m assuming their motives were loftier than mine. I also don’t know what made them officially forget (hey, it’s the Official Gazette, right?) that FM declared martial law. I suspect they knew what happened, but chose to ignore the most salient fact about Marcos’ life, for reasons only they can tell. To his credit, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar effectively reprimanded his staff for the deliberate oversight and corrected the record.

I’ll leave further chastisement of these two gentlemen to the netizens who broke the story. From one PR pro to another, what I can tell them is this: I understand the job you have to do and even your private allegiances, but there are things—very big things much bigger than yourselves—that you just can’t sweep under the rug. Denying martial law or its disastrous effects on our society and economy is like telling Jews that the Holocaust never happened, or was actually a good thing. I salute you for your cheek, but what on earth were you thinking?

There’s a book I’d like to recommend to these two, one which I and a dozen other writers—all students during martial law—put out four years ago on the 40th anniversary of Proclamation 1081, titled Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened, We Were There. (For more on that book, see here: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/806191/lest-we-forget.) I wasn’t too enamored of the long title at that time, but now I appreciate the emphatic clarity of the thing; it’s just the sort of book martial law amnesiacs and deniers need to read.

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But even as we review history, there’s one thing that seems to have escaped many: the current debate about how to look at martial law and where to bury Ferdinand Marcos isn’t about the past; it’s about the future, and what kind of people we are and want to be.

I know that millennials tend to get beat up on because they don’t know enough about martial law, which is hardly their fault since we didn’t teach them enough about it. But it isn’t just them. When people my age express bewilderment over how Bongbong Marcos came so close to becoming Vice President despite his dad’s misdeeds, and how the Marcoses have survived so handsomely, I have to remind them that even under martial law, those of us who opposed Marcos were in the distinct minority. Most Filipinos supported martial law, actively or passively, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Like the Germans who supported Hitler, most Filipinos stood by while we faced the truncheons and firehoses—and even applauded 1081, early on, as the antidote to Communism (1972’s “war on drugs”). So what should we be so surprised about?

That’s why I’ve never referred to EDSA 1 as a revolution, because it wasn’t one in terms of changing anything fundamental in the structures and workings of our society. It was a popular uprising, a street revolt led by another faction of the ruling class, with broad support from the metropolitan middle class. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel euphoric that February, and I still get teary-eyed when I remember the moment; I guess the poignancy comes from knowing what came afterward.

I have no doubt that if the Palace incumbent were to declare martial law today for whatever reason, a majority of Filipinos would support him, although a noisy few of us would be up in arms. Martial law ca. 1972 was also like that, and remained popular for many more years, especially among amoral businessmen who sang its praises until it hit them in the pocket. And then it all went downhill.

Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t see Marcos as a one-eyed ogre, but rather as a calculating Macbeth, keenly aware of his actions and perhaps even troubled by them. In my own turn with revisionism, I’ve even managed to convince myself—as I told the BBC in a recent interview on EDSA (a part which never got aired for lack of time)—that Ferdinand Marcos may have done us a final act of kindness by leaving without ordering a bloodbath. It’s an arguable notion (one I wouldn’t put on the Official Gazette) and it doesn’t change the fact that his regime took what it could until we bled, but as a fictionist and playwright, I like to imagine characters to be more complex than they seem.

A couple of years ago, at a cultural function in Quezon City, Mrs. Marcos preceded me by a few steps down a narrow staircase. She was clearly having a hard time navigating the stairs, and she looked back at me apologetically to say, “Hijo, I’m very sorry I’m keeping you.” I smiled and said, “It’s all right, Ma’am, please take your time.” I felt amused and strangely triumphant.

History is sometimes best seen as a series of comic and tragic ironies, which straight journalism and certainly government tabloids can’t dispense. Come to think of it, who gives a hoot about the Official Gazette? If you want to lie and get away with it, try fiction. I’d be happy to see Messrs. Cualoping and Cabrera in my graduate workshop.

 

Penman No. 167: The Real Value of Remembering

Penman for Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY MARKS the 43rd anniversary of martial law, a time many Filipinos have forgotten or would rather forget. Those of us who went through it sound like a broken record when we say that—with the usual addendum that young people today have no idea what martial law means—and the phonograph gets creakier every year, the echoes fainter. It annoys us when no one else seems to make a big deal of the most centrally formative period of our sixty-something years, but it takes just a little math to realize, “Why should they?”

Forty-three years is longer than the interlude between the two World Wars, and longer even than the time between World War II and Vietnam. In the meanwhile, the world went through computers, VCRs, the collapse of the Soviet Union, cellphones, the Internet, and 9-11. Here at home, we went through EDSAs of various kinds, Pinatubo, Maguindanao, Yolanda, and Mamasapano. That’s an awfully long time, filled with mindboggling diversions and distractions, to keep your mind fixed on a scratchy black-and-white TV image of a man in a barong casting some strange voodoo hex on the the nation.

Thus I’m hardly surprised when my 19-year-old students admit to a blithe ignorance of Marcosian times. You can’t call it amnesia, because they had no memory to begin with; even the fervent clamors of today’s young activists draw on borrowed memory (but then again, isn’t that what history is, a sense-making narrative woven out of someone else’s recollections?).

I’m not a historian, but I try to do what I can to make the past come alive for my students in my Literature and Society class—not even to educate them on the nuances of specific events such as the declaration of martial law, but simply to make them aware of a life beyond the present, beyond themselves. An interest in the past can’t be forced; sometimes the best thing we can do is to open a small window on it, and then to enlarge that opening so they can see the bigger picture, and share in the excitement and the novelty of looking backward rather than forward.

Every now and then, when the urge grabs me and there’s an excuse to do so, I bring some odds and ends from my inestimably deep trove of vintage junk to class, as tinder for discussion. A 1923 Corona typewriter leads to a chat about the technology of writing, and how technology affects writing (Eliot and his typewriter, Hemingway and his pencil, computers and revision); a 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian shows how little has changed (“Look, UP was asking for a permanent endowment even then!”); an 1830 grammar book, perhaps the oldest manmade thing these kids have ever held (yes, I pass the book around for them to get a feel of old paper), offers proof of the near-immutability of grammar (“It’s like glacial ice,” I say. “It moves, but you can’t see it.”)

A young person’s starting point very often is, “What does this have to do with me?” I try to answer that two ways: (1) “Why does it have to have anything to do with you?” Part of growing up is learning and accepting that the world isn’t your nursemaid, that it could and will often be totally indifferent to you and your little plaints. But also (2) in a gentler mood and whenever possible, we connect the dots between, say, the god Achilles and his choice of a short but glorious life and, yes, the martial-law activist who didn’t expect to live beyond 25.

Last week, I urged my class (note “urged”—I keep absolute requirements to a minimum) to watch the movie Heneral Luna—to my mind, easily one of the most significant Filipino movies of recent years. Beng and I had seen it the night before; the theater was three-quarters full, and when the movie ended, the audience applauded, the two of us included. The movie reminded me of how many gaps remained in my own appreciation of our past; if I, a full professor at UP and a self-styled history buff, didn’t know the full story of Antonio Luna, how could I expect my charges to know anything about martial law?

That leads me to think that it won’t be the textbooks or balding professors like me who will make our youth wonder about what else they missed, but the movies—or, more broadly, literature and its power to make dramatic sense of events, its humanization of history. More than four decades after the fact, not enough novels have been written and not enough movies have been made of the martial law period (Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 being the standout in both print and film). Indeed, a definitive and comprehensive history of that time—and an independent one that kowtows neither to Marcos nor to Mao—has yet to be put together, although specific aspects of martial law (legal, economic, political, and personal) have been ventilated in various books and forums.

The real value of remembering martial law or some such national calamity, I’ll hazard, isn’t just in mouthing the oft-repeated “Never again!” I seriously doubt that even those who never experienced it will accept its repetition. Rather, it’s in looking back 43 years to take stock of what we’ve become since, as individuals and as a people—in memoir writing, we call this the difference between the remembered self and the remembering self. The very fact that they’re not the same thing should tell us something. It’s easy to say “No” to martial law ca. 1972, but what exactly will we be saying “Yes” to come 2016? The past keeps getting dimmer, but then again, some days, so does the future.

Penman No. 117: The Way We Were

IMG_4726Penman for Monday, October 6, 2014

 

I’D LIKE to thank the people who’ve given me their time and accorded me their hospitality during my current visit to the US. I’m here to do more research for a book project—an oral history of the First Quarter Storm (the story of my generation, in other words)—and so far I’ve had wonderfully productive interview sessions with some people who were either active participants in the anti-martial law movement or were on the other side of things (or simply on the roadside) at the time.

Those who’ve helped me out, either as interview subjects or facilitators, include former campus journalist and retired engineer Gerry Socco and his wife Chet; lawyer Rodel Rodis; editor Rene Ciria-Cruz; tech journalist and developer Joey Arcellana; and journalist Gemma Nemenzo and her husband, Col. Irwin Ver. All of them are conveniently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Beng and I flew out there from DC for a long weekend of interviews and reunions with old friends.

Rodel and I go back all the way to the Philippine Science High School, where I served as Rodel’s associate editor when he helmed The Science Scholar. It was also in high school—when I myself became editor in chief—that I first heard of Joey Arcellana from our adviser, Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea (mother of the accomplished Doy and Rey Vea), who told me one day: “There are two young writers I’d like you to read. One of them writes for the UP Collegian, and his name is Joey Arcellana. The other is still in high school and writes for the Highlights, and his name is Gary Olivar.” Gemma, who now edits the ezine Positively Filipino, also edited the late, lamented Filipinas magazine, which I used to write a column for. Gerry I knew from the pre-martial law College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and we met again in the worst of possible circumstances—as fellow political prisoners in Bicutan; today, in our sixties, we share an unabashedly bourgeois passion for collecting vintage pens and watches.

In Washington, DC, where I’m formally based through my association with the George Washington University, I’ve been lucky to meet and to interview one of the torchbearers of the anti-Marcos resistance on the East Coast, Jon Melegrito, a retired librarian at GWU who now writes for the DC-based fortnightly Manila Mail. I’ve also been glad to gain the insights of three former State Department officials: former Ambassador John Maisto, who headed the old Office of Philippine Affairs and served in Manila in the late 1970s; his colleague Hank Hendrickson who now serves as executive director of the US-Philippines Society, of which Amb. Maisto is the president; and Santiago “Sonny” Busa, a Filipino-American who has served as consul in Manila, Addis Ababa, and Kuwait, and who has taught International Affairs at West Point. I’ll be doing a bit more traveling to see people in New York and possibly the Midwest.

So far, I’ve interviewed about 30 people for the book, which I’ve begun to write at my sister’s place in Virginia. It’s very strange in a way to write about bloody encounters in coconut groves in the Philippine South while reveling in the sight, outside my window, of bluejays and robins perched on the branches of trees just beginning to acquire an autumnal glow. But perhaps it’s precisely this physical and psychological estrangement that I need to handle such an emotional project—emotional, at least, for members of my generation.

Sometimes what I hear gets a bit too much; for the first time, after having written and published over 25 books with a very dry eye, I wept as I listened to an account of someone I knew shooting—executing—someone who had been her best friend. At the same time, events that might have been terrifyingly life-threatening 40 years ago can now sound absolutely hilarious—or deadpan ironic, such as when firebrand Fluellen Ortigas, selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of 1968, stands beside President Marcos at the awarding ceremonies, with a book titled The Essentials of Marxism in hand. “Join my staff,” Marcos tells him. “I can’t,” Ortigas replies. “You’re going to be a dictator!” Ortigas would later work for Ninoy Aquino, go underground in Panay, get arrested before martial law, get released in 1976, flee to the US via Sabah, get an MBA, and become a businessman in San Francisco.

I have many more stories like Flue’s to tell, each with its own highlights and insights—Elso Cabangon being ambushed on Taft Avenue and taking four bullets, one of them tearing through his cheek; Boy Camara auditioning for the role of Judas before eventually playing Jesus Christ, Superstar; a female comrade being married in the rites of the Party, one hand on her heart, and the other on Mao’s Quotations (it’s a marriage, like many in the movement, that will unravel). But they’ll have to wait until the book itself, which I hope to finish by early next year.

Even now, many old friends and comrades are probably wondering why I haven’t approached them yet or asked so-and-so to be interviewed, because they have interesting and important stories to tell. I’m sure they do, and I have to extend them my apologies in advance, simply because I just don’t have the time or space at the moment to include everything and everyone I should be covering. I’m almost certain that this oral history will lead to a sequel, all the way to EDSA (a book that someone else should begin writing soon). Some people I’ve asked haven’t replied or have declined, and I can only respect their implied wish to be left alone.

Again, this book will be about the past, and while we might bemoan the innocence we lost, or even wax romantic about the way we were, I don’t think too many of my respondents will want to relive their lives in exactly the same way, knowing what they do now. We might not regret what we did—it arguably needed to be done—but we or our children don’t have to repeat it, if it can be helped. That’s how history helps the future.

Penman No. 78: My FQS Project

CEGP Penman for Monday, December 23, 2013

FOR SEVERAL weeks now, some friends from way back—more than 40 years back—have been getting private messages from me, inviting them to take part in what could be an important historical project—important not only to our generation, but more especially to those who have come after us, who know so little about their past.

I’ve just begun what I consider to be my lifelong dream project: The First Quarter Storm: An Oral History. It’s not as if I don’t have enough books to write; at the moment, I’m working on five books in various stages (two nearly done, two halfway through, and this one just started), not to my mention my third novel, which has had to sit on the back burner. I’m no Superman, but I write books for a living, and take on every engagement as a privilege and a responsibility. Still, this one’s a special self-assignment.

After writing biographies and histories for such varied personalities as the Lava brothers, the business icon Washington SyCip, and the former Marcos associate Rudy Cuenca, I felt the time had come for me to do something for my own generation, whose political awakening came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That was one of the most politically charged periods in recent Philippine history, a time many Filipinos my age call the “First Quarter Storm” or FQS, referring to the tumultuous years just before and after the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972.

Those few months around martial law were both frightening and exhilarating, murderous and ennobling, challenging a generation of young Filipinos to offer themselves up to the altar of revolutionary resistance. The martial law regime would last for 14 years and claim thousands of lives, and cause deep damage to Philippine democratic institutions. By the time a peaceful street revolt restored democracy in 1986, the course of Philippine history and the complexion of that FQS generation had been irreversibly changed.

And yet today, 40 years later, many principals from the martial law regime remain entrenched in power along with pretty much the same ruling elite that prospered under martial law. Despite more democratic space, the same deep-seated problems of poverty and injustice remain. It is as if nothing has been learned—most Filipinos born after 1986 have no inkling of what happened before them—which is not surprising, because a definitive history of martial law and the FQS has yet to be written.

I’d like to help in redressing that amnesia by writing an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, a project that will involve conducting in-depth interviews with many of the surviving principals from that period—from the resistance, the government, the military, the religious, and ordinary citizens—while they are still alive and accessible. My interest in the subject is both personal and professional. As many readers know, I myself was imprisoned for seven months as an 18-year-old student activist in 1973, an experience that became the basis for my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing, 1992).

I’ll focus less on the broad sweep of policy than on personal narratives, contextualizing these against particular flash points of the FQS. These personal accounts, I think, will reach deeper into the consciousness of Filipinos today and allow them to grasp the realities and implications of martial law more effectively than an academic paper could.

I’ll be looking for personal stories—including but not limited to or focused on the most harrowing cases of torture and imprisonment (although we’ll certainly have those, unavoidably and necessarily). I’ll be looking for stories of everyday life both aboveground and in the underground; of people preparing for demonstrations and for war, of dealing with separation from family and loved ones, of watching from the sidelines (or even the other side of the barricades), of trying to live an ordinary life amid the chaos, of achieving some kind of balance between the personal and the political. I want stories of courage, of doubt, of heroism, of betrayal, of commitment, of guilt, of loss, of survival. I’ll also be looking for funny, poignant, ironic stories. And then I’ll have an update on everyone interviewed—what they did and what they became after the FQS—for a brief epilogue.

I have no overarching agenda for this book, just an honest recording of people’s memories (as flawed or as self-serving as they may turn out to be), before those participants in and witnesses to history vanish. I don’t mean for this book to be a manifesto or an indictment or any kind of political treatise; I will maintain strict journalistic and scholarly neutrality, endeavoring to gather a multitude and a variety of voices. I will be contextualizing what people say with some factual background, but I will not editorialize or romanticize or make judgmental commentary. Rather than take an obvious stance, I will let the book’s stories speak for themselves, and will leave it to the professional historians and political scientists to use the book as material for their critical evaluations. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge a grant from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, which kindly offered their assistance after hearing about my project, as part of their own project for the documentation of the martial-law period.)

I’ve begun with a small group of people I know, which I expect to enlarge over the next year that I will devote to this project. (So far, they’ve included former SDK and later GMA spokesman Gary Olivar; former UP Vanguard and UPSCAn Ed Maranan; UP activist stalwart Rey Vea; former Makibaka member Sylvia Mesina; Cebu firebrand and now Judge Meinrado Paredes; colegiala-turned-activist Joy Jopson Kintanar; former UP Student Council Chairman and Upsilonian Manny Ortega; and Jesus Christ Superstar and Afterbirth mainstay Boy Camara, among others.) Of course, I’ll remain open to suggestions about whom else to reach out to. I’m particularly interested in stories from the military and the police, as well as from government officials, businessmen and ordinary citizens who may have vivid memories of that period. I’m interviewing people who were active in the Visayas and Mindanao. Sometime next year, on a visit to the US, I will also be interviewing US-based former activists and other principals.

If you think you have an interesting first-person story from that period that you can share with others—whatever your political position was then, or may be now—send me a message at my email at jdalisay@mac.com. (I’m not surprised—I do feel doubly responsible—when some interviewees tell me that “I’m telling you my story so my children will know what really happened and what I did.”) I can’t promise to include everyone’s story in the final manuscript, which will be subject to space and other editorial limitations (I’ll be sending everyone whose story will be included a copy of the text, for their final revisions and approval); but I can promise to be fair, and to render what people tell me as faithfully as possible.

By so doing, I hope that this book can contribute to a deeper understanding of how democracy has been challenged and has survived in the Philippines, and to continuing efforts at national reconciliation, by bringing out the human and more personal aspects of a nation in crisis and a society under stress. This way, it might also provide guideposts for the thinking and behavior of young 21st century Filipinos facing their own choices and challenges as individuals and as citizens. Wish me luck!

Penman No. 72: Martial Law in Three Filipino Novels

KillingPenman for Monday, November 11, 2013 

LATE LAST month, I flew down to Davao for a group organized by the chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Dr. Maris Diokno, for a roundtable discussion on narratives of martial law. The Martial Law Historical Advisory Committee, created by Administrative Order No. 30, had been tasked to collect, evaluate, and preserve documentary and other materials pertaining to the Philippine martial law experience, and this roundtable was an early but vital stage of that process, a thinking-through of basic assumptions and expectations from participants in and scholars of that period.

I was invited not only because of my activist background and imprisonment under martial law, but because I’ve written a novel and some stories about it, and will write yet more—a nonfiction oral history of the First Quarter Storm, for which I’ve been given a grant by the NHCP. I’ll say more about this project in a forthcoming column, but in the meanwhile, let me share excerpts from a brief think piece that I contributed to the Davao roundtable (which, incidentally, was both insightful and moving, attended by the likes of martial law veterans Joy Jopson Kintanar and Judge Meinrado Paredes, as well as younger scholars and writers Leloy Claudio and Roby Alampay). Here’s what I wrote:

In his review in Philippine Studies of Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind—one of the first and few novels to have dealt with our martial-law experience—Fr. Joseph Galdon quoted another writer, Linda Ty-Casper, who wrote that:

Literature is one way [by which] history, which too often reduces life to dates and events, can animate life so that man is returned to the center of human existence. It is man, after all, not nations, who feels the hunger caused by economic recessions and market fluctuations, who suffers separations and dislocations from social upheavals, who catches the bullets and bombs of war. It is in man’s flesh and bones that the events of history are etched. Individuals die, while their country goes on. It is in literature that generations of images representing man are preserved. It is in literature that we can recover again and again the promise of our resurrection. It is the house of our flesh in which we can refresh, restore and reincarnate ourselves.

I’m beginning with this quotation because I’d like to suggest that, in some ways, the best way to remind Filipinos and to make sense of what happened to them under martial law is through fiction rather than factual narrative, because fiction requires and creates a wholeness of human experience. Young Filipinos, especially, need to see martial law as a story—a continuing story with consequences reaching into their generation and even the next.

Considering that the Marcos era lasted more than 20 years—from his first election in 1965 to his forced departure in 1986—it’s a bit surprising that not too many Filipino novels have been written about Marcos and martial law. (I should immediately qualify this statement by saying that, actually, not too many Filipino novels have been written, period. As a literary form, the novel—whether in English or Filipino—has never been our strong suit, unlike the Indians and the Chinese.) You would expect that martial law, in particular, would have left a thick scar or welt on our literary consciousness and imagination, in the same way that many survivors of martial-law prison were plagued by intense, recurring nightmares long after their incarceration. In fact, however, we have barely dealt with it in our literature, and if our children today know little if anything at all about martial law, it is because we have not written enough about it, and have left the little that we have written out of the curriculum.

Online can be found two very interesting and fairly comprehensive listings and discussions of the literature we have produced on our martial law and martial law-related experience. The first is a lecture delivered by the writer Edgardo Maranan in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1999 and published by the site Our Own Voice in 2007, titled “Against the Dying of the Light: The Filipino Writer and Martial Law.” The second is a reading list compiled by a blogger and bibliophile who calls himself “rise.” Both lists contain and discuss works of fiction, poetry and nonfiction produced during and after martial law, material that now generally falls under the rubric of “protest literature.”

Understandably perhaps, it takes time, will, and bit of distance to process—with the benefit of hindsight and a freer imagination—a traumatic experience like martial law. In my case, it took nearly 20 years after my imprisonment to try and make sense of it in a novel. I’m not even sure, at the end of things, if I succeeded. But it’s important in any case to make the effort—for our creative writers to inscribe their own history of our political and social experience—because the writerly imagination is a powerfully intuitive tool for sense-making. Creative writing is integrative, rather than analytical; it puts things together, rather than taking them apart, as scholarship and criticism tend to do.

Today, I’ll focus on how three novels—I’m immodestly including mine—have represented our martial law experience in its various aspects. At least one of these three novels—two in English and one in Filipino—would be how our students today encounter, if at all, martial law and its causes and effects. The novels I am referring to are Dekada ’70 by Lualhati Bautista, first published in 1988; Bamboo in the Wind by Azucena Grajo Uranza (1990); and Killing Time in a Warm Place by myself (1992).

What the three novels share most strongly is a narrative of how martial law came about and what its immediate effects were. Of the three, Dekada ’70 offers the broadest sweep of things, covering the whole decade as it follows the individual paths that the members of the Bartolome family take. It is also the most unabashedly didactic, presenting long and detailed expositions of the political situation obtaining at that time, an approach that literary aesthetes might find too direct but which, when you think of it, is probably the only explanation young readers will have of an episode that to them might as well be ancient history.

All three novels are basically grounded in the specific experience of the middle class, taking note of its bright-eyed idealism and yet also its vulnerability to vacillation and co-optation. In this respect, Bamboo in the Wind attempts to cover the broadest ground, reaching across the social spectrum to present the plight of peasants under feudal tenancy as well as to display the clannishness of the elite. It ends just after the declaration of martial law, on the portentous note that “It was going to be a long night,” as indeed martial law would be, for the next decade.

My semi-autobiographical first novel Killing Time in a Warm Place is focused on the person and the growth of its narrator, Noel Bulaong, who has provincial roots but grows up in Manila, studies in UP, becomes an activist, is imprisoned under martial law, and then, upon his release, joins the government service as a propagandist no less; faithless, loveless, and friendless, he leaves for the United States to study and live there, coming home only for the death of his father, where the novel begins. Of the three novels, it is the most personal, although Dekada ’70 can also be read as Amanda’s story, the making of a feminist in the crucible of political and personal turmoil.

To my mind, the most important contribution these three novels make to the discourse on martial law is not even and not only their depiction of the horrors and excesses of martial law—the obligatory scenes, you might say, the arrests, the tortures, the rapes, the thievery, the brute exercise of State power over the people. It is their exploration of the element of collusion and complicity—of how we, in a sense, allowed ourselves to be ruled by a regime that promised peace and progress for the price of a little national discipline.

In Dekada ’70, Julian Bartolome Sr. gives the regime every benefit of the doubt, convincing himself of the government’s good intentions, despite Julian Jr.’s deepening involvement in the Left. In Killing Time, Noel Bulaong does a 180-degree turn and joins the dark side—an acrobatic maneuver that many former activists, including me myself, performed, caught in a bipolar world. Having left the Left, it seemed that one had little choice but to cast one’s lot with the Right, and it’s no surprise that many ex-activists became the sharpest thinkers and most active doers of Marcos, Cory Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, and Arroyo. Bamboo in the Wind delves into how martial law benefited the elite, especially those factions that sided with the regime, and how it sought to corrupt intellectuals with progressive inclinations. In other ways, these novels speak of guilt and redemption, of how we are defined by family and class, of abject betrayal and astounding heroism.

These novels are far from perfect, and we can argue all day about what they failed to say and how they may have misrepresented this and that. But writing and promoting works of fiction like them may yet be the best way we can remind our people, especially this “selfie” generation, of the fact of martial law in the Philippines, and of its continuing legacy.

Penman No. 14: Free Ericson Acosta

AcostaPenman for Monday, Oct. 1, 2012

LAST MONDAY, I wrote about recalling the horrors of martial law, which had been declared 40 years earlier. That same day, I had a chance encounter with a young woman named Kerima Tariman Acosta, whose husband Ericson has now been languishing in a Samar jail for a year—a political prisoner under a new regime four decades after martial law.

My interest in the case was piqued not just because of the obvious irony, but because Ericson was a former editor of the Philippine Collegian and a poet—in other words, a brother-in-arms as a writer.

Ericson was arrested on Feb. 13, 2011 by soldiers of the Philippine Army near San Jorge in Samar, without a warrant; Kerima says that he was carrying only his laptop, a cellphone, and some money, having been conducting human rights research in that militarized community on behalf of a peasant group, Kapawa. Later, however, his captors produced a grenade, which they claimed Ericson had in his pocket; they would later charge him with illegal possession of explosives, which Ericson vehemently denies, saying that the grenade was planted to link him to the New People’s Army.

Upon his arrest, says Kerima, Ericson was interrogated for 44 hours, tortured, and forced to admit that he was an NPA member. He was moved from detention in a military camp to the Calbayog sub-provincial jail, but soldiers from the local infantry battalion were sent to camp out in this jail to guard him.

Meanwhile, his case has been crawling through the courts. Prominent legal and artists’ groups have rallied behind Ericson’s release—including the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which has taken on his defense, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and International PEN, among others—arguing that he was arrested illegally to begin with and was tortured, and that the charge against him was manufactured on the spot. Still, he remains in prison, despite an urgent plea from his family for his release, or at least for an opportunity for him to be seen by a doctor, because he had been sick with renal and prostate problems even before his arrest.

I’ve been a firm believer in President Noynoy Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” campaign, but something like this makes me wonder how well we’ve truly exorcised—if we have, at all—the demons of our martial-law past, particularly in terms of reining in the abuses of our military, and of educating them (and thereby ourselves) on the value of respecting human rights.

We’ve let convicted murderers and child-rapists go free, although PNoy’s men can say that that was under a previous and truly morally abominable administration. Ericson Acosta was arrested under PNoy’s watch. What’s worse, it turns out that Ericson is hardly alone. When human rights activists tracked him down in Catbalogan, they found five more political prisoners in the city jail. These activists estimate that more than 350 people still languish in Philippine prisons because of their political beliefs.

The President can reclaim the moral high ground not just by remembering what Marcos and his military did to his father—as he did on the 40th anniversary of martial law—but by acting differently and speedily to bring justice to these cases, as he would have wished someone did for Ninoy, and not simply fall back on the old Palace excuse of “Let the military do its job.” Experience shows that when you do that, you let the butchers loose on the people. I haven’t lost hope in reform within the military mindset, but it takes a Commander in Chief to set the tone and give the orders.

If the government thinks that the evidence against Acosta is strong and irrefutable, it should prove its case, and prove it quickly. Otherwise, it should free Ericson Acosta and the others like him—arrested for patently political reasons 40 years after martial law—to put that era squarely in the past.

* * * * *

ON A happier note, I’d like to mention a new book whose author exemplifies the best of what a Filipino can be and can achieve internationally. Dr. Jojo Sayson is a Fil-Am physical therapist and motivational speaker, a UST graduate who has done pioneering research work for NASA and who heads a foundation that helps children with cancer and other debilitating diseases.

His biography, Springboard to Heaven: The Jojo Sayson Adventure (Image Workshop Press, 2012)—co-authored and edited by biographer and film director James Riordan—chronicles the journey of a poor Manileño boy who leaves to work in the US with $170 in his pocket and who goes on to become a scientist engaged in finding solutions to the problem of lower back pain—not my back or yours, but that of the NASA astronaut, who has to endure weeks if not months of microgravity in space, which puts unusual stresses on the body. To understand this problem more thoroughly, Sayson himself went through microgravity training, and out this came a landmark paper published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine in 2008. Jojo must have enjoyed the experience, because he subsequently applied to join NASA’s astronaut corps as a mission specialist for 2013.

To quote from the book: “Astronauts report that the ‘fetal tuck or cannonball position,’ with knees-to-chest, relieves their back pain. The article presents research and references to describe the possible reasons for this relief, their clinical consequences and the rationale of the numerous proposed exercise countermeasures suggested for astronauts to perform in space to increase spinal loading. (These countermeasures also may prevent herniated disks which can occur post-flight.) The authors also suggest the possibility of employing, in conjunction with the countermeasures, a harness designed by Sayson to stimulate spinal compression and reduce disc expansion.”

That’s heavy technical stuff, but what’s more interesting and important for most of us Pinoys is to see another kababayan opening new doors abroad not just for Filipinos, but for humanity itself.

The book is now available at National Book Store, Powerbooks, and Bestsellers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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