Penman for Monday, January 11, 2016
I’M WRITING this in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where I’ve come with a group of writers, most of them visiting Filipino-Americans, for the second and closing leg of the NVM Gonzalez Workshop, organized and led by NVM’s son Dr. Michael Gonzalez. Last year, 2015, marked the centenary of the late National Artist’s birth, and Myke thought that it would be fitting to hold the workshop, now on its sixth iteration, in the place most closely associated with his father, Mindoro.
NVM was actually born in my home province, Romblon (“about 60 kilometers and 40 years away,” I like to say), but he grew up in Mindoro, and wrote most of his works about its hardy people and their way of life, even when he moved to the United States. NVM died in 1999, but his memory remains fresh among his friends, colleagues, and former students on both sides of the Pacific. It was to honor that memory that Myke put this group together for both a workshop and a literary pilgrimage to the Philippines.
This year’s US-based contingent includes Mary Grace Bertulfo, who has written for television and children’s education and who runs a children’s creative writing workshop, Taleblazers, in Chicago; Anna Alves, a PhD student with the American Studies Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Chris “Kawika” Guillermo, a mixed-race Asian-American with Chinese, Filipino and Irish roots who has a PhD in English from the University of Washington, specializing in Asian and Asian-American fiction; Lisa Suguitan Melnick, a third-generation Filipina-American, an adjunct professor at the College of San Mateo and a contributing writer for PositivelyFilipino.com; Penelope Flores, a retired mathematician and educator from San Francisco State University; Myke Gonzalez, of course, who teaches Philippine Studies and Behavioral Science at the City College of San Francisco; and Evelina Galang, the workshop director, an accomplished fictionist who directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Miami.
Their local counterparts were Kat Cruz, a UP Business Administration graduate and company executive with a keen interest in writing; Meeko Camba, a young opera singer now studying Journalism in UP; Sarah Matias, a Creative Writing major who now runs Ant Savvy Creatives, a marketing and events company; Marily Orosa, a prizewinner publisher of coffee table books; Timmy Tuason, an expert in instructional design, materials development and project management; Jojo Hosaka, a surgeon and dog-show judge (and, like Timmy, a fellow fountain-pen enthusiast); Claire Agbayani, a graduate writing student at DLSU and PR practitioner; Judith Castillo, a teacher of English in Calapan; and Raul Manicad, an engineer, businessman, and guitarmaker. Myke and Evelyn were backstopped on the teaching staff by veteran fictionist Charlson Ong and myself.
We held the first part of the workshop from January 4 to 5 at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where NVM had taught for many years in the 1950s, in the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the College of Arts and Letters Library, which my office—the UP Institute of Creative Writing—administers as a repository of contemporary Philippine and Southeast Asian literature. From January 6 to 9, we moved to Calapan, where NVM used to go from their home in Mansalay to type out his manuscripts at the municipio, on paper that, Myke recalls, NVM apparently “borrowed” from the municipal government, whose stamp it bore.
The mixed composition of the group and the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds led to some very interesting discussions dealing with identity, race, language, and representation. While this was a writers’ workshop focused as much on technique as one’s philosophy of writing, inevitably the politics of writing took the foreground, given the Fil-Ams’ engagement with the issues that come with writing as a minority in America.
We talked about how the writer’s political positions define or feed into craft and technique, and how they shape the story itself. Understandably, given the environment they operate in, our US-based friends were keen on discussing the representation of race, of the Other, and the depiction of character in a racially or ethnically charged environment. We agreed that it was important to be accurate and to be fair in creating characters who will inevitably be seen to represent their race, whatever they may be; on the other hand, I interjected, it was just as important to remember that the character had first to succeed as an individual in the story, and that the character could even—and more interestingly—go against type; while we share many beliefs and practices as Filipinos, not all Filipinos think alike, and thankfully so.
The discussions also became a mutual revelation of what it was like to write as a Filipino and as a Filipino-American, and how we could be so similar yet also different in many ways. It wasn’t just the vocabulary, but the sensibility that came into play. In the end, we took the cue from NVM himself, who once famously explained his use of language thus: “I write in Filipino, using English.”
I learned a new word from Myke, who has a background in the social sciences—schismogenesis, promoted by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, which roughly translates into how groups proliferate by breaking up. The context was the oft-made observation of how Fil-Ams and their organizations tend to fall apart because of personal and political differences (by one account I read, there are more than 3,500 Fil-Am organizations in Southern California alone)—a tendency we uniformly deplore. But Myke’s new word suggests a positive aspect, a way by which a race and its culture propagates itself.
We’d like to thank our hosts—the Madrigal-Gonzalez clan, for the use of the reading room in UP; Myke’s sister Selma, who spread out a very generous merienda for us; the Mother Butler Guild of Calapan, who conducted a charming putongan ceremony for the visitors; Florante Villarica, who has written a history of Oriental Mindoro and who had us over for dinner at his home; Anya Postma and the Mangyan Heritage Center, who made a wonderful presentation on Mangyan life and culture; and Chicago-based Almi Gilles, who lent us her their family’s beach house in Puerto Galera for our penultimate day in Mindoro.
And thanks, of course, to Myke and the Gonzalez family, for keeping their father’s flame alive.