Penman No. 20: Report from Lansing


Penman for Monday, November 12, 2012


THANKS TO superstorm Sandy, which shut down nearly all public traffic on the US East Coast, my flight back to New York from Lansing, Mich. was canceled a couple of weeks ago, requiring me to stay for the last day of the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), where I had come to read a paper. I’d planned on leaving that Tuesday because our departure for Manila was set for Thursday, and I wanted the extra day to tie up loose ends and do some last-minute shopping with Beng, who was waiting at her sister’s in New York. But Sandy nixed all that, threatening even my flight home.

But Providence must have had other things in mind, because that last day at Icophil turned out to be a most productive one for me, in terms of making new contacts and friends and listening to provocative presentations.

Let me report, first of all, that Icophil 2012—the ninth of this once-in-four-year series—was a resounding success, with about 250 participants signing in, well over the 150 the organizers had been expecting. This means that there’s a lot of interest in the Philippines and in Philippine studies out there, not only from us Filipinos but also from foreign scholars specializing in Philippine concerns and affairs. (And if you’re wondering why, ask instead why not—given how we’re a fairly large country of more than 90 million people, living in one of Asia’s richest cultural crossroads and exporting our labor and talent to nearly every other country on the planet.) Indeed, about half or more than half of all the participants I met at Icophil weren’t based in the Philippines (from where, admittedly, going to international conferences can be quite expensive, especially without university or government support).

What were they interested in? As Icophil’s programme went, everything from archaeological digs, Pinoy boxing, and the Ati-atihan festival to the economy, indigenous peoples, peace building, and electoral reform. There’s never a dearth of subjects to be explored where the Philippines is concerned, and every door at Icophil was an invitation to a new dish at an intellectual smorgasbord. Everyone I spoke to agreed that they had a hard time choosing which session to attend, and I myself ended up walking into session rooms almost at random, imbibing whatever was on offer to get the full range of things.

I learned a lot by listening to Jay Gonzalez—who teaches political science while also serving as an assistant boxing coach at the University of San Francisco—talk about how he used boxing as an entry point to introducing his students to Filipino and Asian values and attitudes. Robert Balarbar of the National Museum explained the intricate process by which he and his team restored Botong Francisco’s “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines,” a painting now hanging at the Philippine General Hospital. Robin Hemley of the University of Iowa undertook his own investigation of the controversy surrounding the alleged discovery of the Stone Age Tasaday tribe in Mindanao in 1971—a discovery soon denounced by critics as a hoax—and came to the tentative conclusion that the truth was probably somewhere in between the claims of both believers and naysayers. Sharon Delmendo, a professor at St. John Fisher College in New York who has written extensively about Philippine-American relations, shared the early fruits of her recent research on the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution who found refuge in Manila under the auspices of President Manuel Quezon. Her findings were supported by film footage and interviews put together by independent Fil-Am filmmaker Sonny Izon. Speaking of film, award-winning director Nick Deocampo closed the conference with a screening of his brilliantly animated new documentary on American influences in Philippine cinema.

I’m becoming something of a recluse the older I get, but Icophil—and that extra day—reminded me of how valuable and important it was to keep in touch with fellow academics, particularly those engaged in significant and interesting research that very few other people can be expected to undertake. That’s the burden of scholars and scholarship: their concerns may seem obscure if not downright silly and useless to more practically oriented people, but their ultimate service is to help us better understand ourselves.

They don’t do our thinking for us so much as lay out possible ways of thinking about a problem or situation like migration, conservation, or resource management. I’m fairly sure that many scholars would make lousy executives (although this has been resoundingly disproved in some cases), but their insights into human and social behavior, not to mention their understanding of the physical and natural world, help politicians and businessmen make smarter decisions (unfortunately, not always more socially beneficial ones).

At Icophil, over the farewell dinner that I would have missed had I left on schedule the day before, I also had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Feldman and Mario Feir, who together run Asian Rare Books ( from One McKinley Place in Global City. ARB had operated in New York City for over three decades before moving to the Philippines, where Stephen and Mario oversee an incredible, multi-thousand-volume collection of rare books. It’s accessible by appointment only, and I fully intend to avail myself of their kind invitation to visit them one of these days.

To digress a bit, I had one more reason to be rushing home to the Philippines, notwithstanding Sandy. As a shameless, diehard ‘60s liberal, I’m a big Obama fan, and wanted to see him re-elected. But I seem to have had a personal history with American presidential elections: I was in the United States on my first visit when Ronald Reagan won in 1980, and there again as a grad student when George Bush the Father won in 1988. In 2008, I was also in the US on a family visit, but left just a few days before the election, and Barack Obama won. Call it a voodoo jinx, but I knew I had to be out of there before November 6 if I wanted my guy to win. And that’s what happened—Beng and I managed to fly out of JFK on November 1, a day after the airport reopened. Barack, you owe me a big one.

Penman No. 17: Another October, Another Michigan

Penman for Monday, October 22, 2012

LIKE I mentioned last week, I’m in the US to visit family and to participate at the International Conference on the Philippines (Icophil), which is taking place Oct. 28-30 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

Dealing with all aspects of Philippine Studies, Icophil happens every four years, and it’s been held around the world—mainly in the US and the Philippines, but also in Australia and the Netherlands; the upcoming conference in Michigan will be the ninth. Icophil’s international reach reflects not only the global Filipino diaspora, but also the growing interest and engagement of non-Filipino scholars in Philippine affairs. While most participants still come from the Philippines, a significant number of speakers and panelists come from foreign universities.

Icophil also provides scholars an opportunity to assess the state of Philippine Studies around the world, in a roundtable organized by Prof. Belinda Aquino of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who is Icophil’s founding chair. Convenors for this year’s conference are the eminent scholars Dr. Roger Bresnahan of MSU and Dr. Bernardita Churchill of UP.

Aside from us Filipinos, this meeting will bring together Filipinists from the US, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, France, Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands. By institutional affiliation, the confirmed Filipino participants will include Jose Buenconsejo, Marilyn Canta, and myself (UP Diliman)); Filomeno Aguilar, Jr., Czarina Saloma-Akpedonu, and Lisandro Claudio (Ateneo de Manila); Paul Dumol and Clement Camposano (University of Asia and the Pacific); Raymundo Rovillos (UP Baguio); Teresita Ang See (KAISA); Nick Deocampo (Center for New Cinema);  Genevieve L. Asenjo (DLSU); Hope Sabanpan-Yu (University of San Carlos), Kristian Cordero (Ateneo de Naga); and Prisciliano Bauzon (University of Southern Mindanao).

Icophil 2012’s keynote speaker will be an international expert on climate change, Dr. Rodel Lasco, Senior Scientist and Philippine Program Coordinator of the World Agro-Forestry Centre (ICRAF) and Affiliate Professor, UPLB School of Environmental Science and Management. A recipient of the Outstanding Young Scientist Award in 1997, Dr. Lasco has been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999. In 2009, he was elected to the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines.

Trailers for two new and interesting documentaries will be shown: one by MSU Prof. Geri Alumit-Zeldes on the two Filipino nurses who were wrongly convicted for murdering their patients in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the mid-1970s, and another, by filmmaker Sonny Izon, about the “Manilaners”—Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust who found refuge in Manila through the intercession of President Manuel Quezon. Filmmaker Nick Deocampo will also be showing a documentary on American influences on Philippine cinema.

The panel discussions cover a predictably broad range of topics, from indigenous peoples, the Pinoy diaspora, and peace-building to economic relations, modernization, and popular culture (one of my early favorites on the program: “Automats, Supper Clubs, Drive-ins, and Quarantined Carinderias: The Contradictions of Restaurant Culture in Post-War Manila” by Peter Keppy of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation).

I expect to be ruffling a few academic feathers with my chosen topic, which just happens to be one of my recent areas of expertise: “The Commissioned Biography: Confessions of a Hired Gun.” I’ll be speaking less as an academic than a professional writer, and I’ll try to keep it light, but I’ll be dealing with some serious ethical and academic questions raised by the practice of biographical writing from a sympathetic point of view, as opposed to the independent and critical stance expected of the unpaid scholar. Aside from payment for the writer and PR for the subject, can there be anything to be gained from the commissioned biographies that have appeared in recent years on Philippine shelves? Can they be of any service to the academic historian, political scientist, and litterateur? My provisional answer is yes, but I’m going to have to prove my case.

I tacked on the official part of this trip to my annual vacation so it’s not costing UP anything, but I have another personal reason for going to Icophil. I’m a proud graduate of Michigan State’s archrival, the University of Michigan (MFA ’88), but it was MSU (the “other” Michigan) and East Lansing that hosted me for more than two months on my first visit to the US (and my first trip abroad) in 1980. I’d never been away from my home and family for so long, and it was here that my 30-year-plus relationship with America took off. I would even write about that first autumn—about a foray into the yellow forest in my backyard called Sanford Woods—in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (1992):

“Sandbar, Sandfar, Sanford. Sanford Woods. In the shock of autumn, the first of my life, I took a walk in Sanford Woods with Estoy. Estoy himself had arrived in the United States just the previous year to take a Ph.D. in Development Economics on a fellowship, and I took the train up to Michigan the first chance I got to leave the conference in New York. I had never stepped into a forest of red and gold before, and for the first few minutes I trod carefully on the layered ground, as though disturbing it would hurtle me back in a swirl of pretty leaves to prison camp. We let ourselves be taken in and covered by that new season: we watched the squirrels shimmy up the trunks, and, coming into a patch of pure, delirious yellow, I persuaded Estoy to pose for a snapshot he could send home to his wife Marie. He stood stiffly against the color, hands in his jacket pockets, and he muttered an oath about the cold, but his grin was true. On the way back we observed how fat the squirrels were. In Manila, Estoy said, they’d be roasting on a spit, if they ever got that big. I said that there probably was a law preventing people from doing that in this country.”

That fellow “Estoy” was based on a real character, a friend who passed away a few years ago, whose life was marked by both blinding brilliance and consuming darkness. I barely told his story in the novel, and it will be a moving experience for me to retrace our steps into those woods, in another October more than three decades after.

More comic is the memory of my first kitchen disasters in that new country: of how I walked miles to the nearest Asian food store, craving food from home, and then eagerly frying a panful of dilis in my dorm room, only to have people hammering on my door, asking where that awful smell was coming from; and of stashing bottles of Coke in the freezer and forgetting about them, to be greeted by a ragged waterfall of black ice upon opening the fridge.

I’ll have a thing or two to say in East Lansing, but I’m really looking forward to more private conversations with the squirrels and sugar maples of Sanford Woods.