Penman No. 280: Handfuls of Fragrant Hay

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Penman for Monday, December 4, 2017

 

I WAS asked to give a keynote address at this year’s Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union on the subject of “Celebrating Arguilla”—Manuel Estabilla Arguilla, the writer who was born in Nagrebcan, Bauang, 106 years ago. I’ll share that talk in three installments starting this week.

“Celebrating Arguilla” seems simple enough. After all, who hasn’t read and enjoyed “Midsummer” or “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife,” or pondered the social implications of “Caps and Lower Case,” to mention three of his most familiar stories?

But right there is a huge difference in theme and sensibility between “Midsummer” and “Caps and Lower Case,” which might as well have been written by two different people. How the dreamy romanticism of “Midsummer” could coexist with the gloomy realism of “Caps and Lower Case” might seem a mystery, but those of us who’ve written and read enough will know that, well, it happens, and perhaps it should. You see this spread and stretch in Arcellana, for example, in NVM Gonzalez, in Sionil Jose, even in Nick Joaquin.

I am not a literary scholar or theorist, so I cannot speak about Arguilla the way Fr. Joseph Galdon and E. San Juan do, and I have no special familiarity with him the way near-contemporaries like F. Sionil Jose would. I am a biographer of sorts, but have no access to his life beyond the standard summaries on Wikipedia and a few scattered accounts.

All I have to go on is the fact that I, too, have written stories, was born in a small village far from Manila and close to the sea, and have dealt quite often with the countryside in my fiction, although readers who know me as a city boy have never probably noticed that. I moved to the big city much sooner than Arguilla did, and so I cannot claim the almost ritualistic knowledge of rural life that he displays with gusto in his recollections of Nagrebcan, his evocation of such details as “handfuls of fragrant hay” in that stolidly premodern society where men till the fields and harvest the grain, and the women cook and wash.

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So the best I can do today is to engage Arguilla in a kind of conversation, raising the questions that one writer might have for another. Why do you write what you write, for whom, and for what? And for myself, I might ask, what is this writer doing that I should value? How does he or she reflect on my own work?

Without an autobiographical essay in which Arguilla himself would have explained his writing, I can only speculate on the answers based solely on the evidence of his fiction and of what others have said about his work.

Manuel Arguilla’s first—and to my knowledge, his only solely authored—book, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife, a collection of 19 stories, came out in 1940, on the eve of a war that Arguilla would not survive. He was 29 when the book was published; within four years he was dead at the hands of the Japanese, reportedly beheaded at the Manila Chinese Cemetery in August 1944 along with other guerrilla leaders.

History tells us that 33 can be a good time to die, if you’ve more or less accomplished your mission, as did Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great, Eva Peron, and, just short by a few months, Bruce Lee. Arguably, Arguilla had much more to write, much more to achieve, when his life was abruptly cut short by war.

He had published his first book, with some of his stories appearing in prestigious American literary journals. He had successfully transplanted himself from his provincial roots in La Union to cosmopolitan Manila, earning a degree in Education in 1933 from the University of the Philippines, where he led the UP Writers Club and edited the Literary Apprentice. He taught creative writing at the University of Manila before moving to the Bureau of Welfare and edited its publication well into wartime, when he worked for the guerrillas in intelligence and was captured and executed by the Japanese.

His widow Lydia, herself a fine writer and also a guerrilla, went on to become a painter and to establish the Philippine Art Gallery in Ermita, a seminal promoter of modernist art in the country, and served as a diplomat in Geneva before her death in 1969. In 1957, the book Philippine Tales and Fables was published in Manila by Capitol Publishing, with Manuel posthumously sharing the authorship with Lyd. Two of Lyd’s stories—the first published under her maiden name Lydia Villanueva, before she married Manuel—are featured in Leopoldo Yabes’ landmark anthologies of the Philippine short story.

I have yet to locate his essays, but Manuel Arguilla definitely produced more than the 19 stories in his 1940 collection. One story, the rather whimsical “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” was published in the Philippine Review in April 1943, a year before his death. But it will always be the stories in his book that will define Arguilla for us, and I’ll do a quick review of these for those who may not be too familiar with his work.

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Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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Penman No. 103: Too Much Drama

Penman for Monday, June 30, 2014

IN MY other life as a dramatist, which came to an end some years ago, I wrote about a dozen plays for the stage and more than twice as many television plays and screenplays, mostly for the late Lino Brocka. Lino and I happily turned out double-hanky tearjerkers with such rousingly commercial titles (which someone presumably from the marketing department thought up) as Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos, Maging Akin Ka Lamang, Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde, and my very first one, back in 1977, Tahan Na, Empoy, Tahan.

I may have stopped writing drama to focus on fiction and nonfiction, but now and then the old skills get a workout. I’ve always said that there’s no better training for a writer of fiction than to have been a playwright, because playwriting teaches dramatic economy—how to set up a scene, how to get the most out of your characters, how to use dialogue effectively (meaning, at its most complex, how to get your characters to say things they don’t mean, or to mean things they can’t say).

Last week, I said as much again to a group of writers and program analysts from a TV network who wanted to see how writers think. I told them that drama’s to be found not only in filmscripts or on the set—it’s all around us, taking place quietly in some fastfood joint or some bus stop or some hospital ward; the writer’s task is to see that drama, to palpate it from the tedium of everyday life, and to sharpen and brighten its edges so others can see the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary moments.

We’ll save the rest of the drama lesson for another day; I bring this up only to establish my bona fides when it comes to talking about drama, and about my thesis today, which is that—even for a writer of melodrama, for which I make no excuses—there seems to be entirely too much drama around us these days, or theater if you will. (There’s a subtle difference, if you think of drama as the situation and of theater as its enactment on some kind of stage.)

Case in point: I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick not only of Senator Bong Revilla’s whinings about the heat in his room at the “custodial center” (it’s not even a real prison, for Pete’s sake), but also of how the media has fussed over it like it was a real news story (“Can Congresswoman Lani make it back from Greenhills in 15 minutes with the air cooler? That’s all the time she has before visiting hours end!” said one radio reporter breathlessly.) My totally un-PC prescription? Give him the fan, give him whatever creature comfort he wants, but reduce his cell to about a third of its size and keep that one window, from which I hope he sees a mall, or something with lots of people and traffic in it. There’s no better reminder of what prison means than limited space and movement, no matter what you may have with you. (I remember watching a Marlboro neon sign blink at me on the far side of martial law prison, back in 1973; that was torture.)

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s departure for the custodial center was only slightly less theatrical, thanks again to the media who couldn’t get enough of the father-and-son story being played out in all of its bitter if obvious irony. Of course we expected the family to bond around Jinggoy, and for tears to be shed; that’s any family’s natural privilege, and its natural response. Indeed what underwhelmed me, from my dramatist’s standpoint, was how predictable everything was from start to finish, especially the inevitable “Mayor Erap, ano’ng nararamdaman ninyo sa pagkakakulong ng inyong anak?” I wanted to scream, “E ano pa?”

I can just see the video highlights from these staged “surrenders” figuring in these politicos’ next campaigns: the prayers in church, the mug shots, the hugs and waves from distraught spouses, parents, and kids; the cell doors closing, as the music goes up and under, before we hear a murmured voice-over: “May bukas pa….”

Case in point Number 2: Sometimes silence is drama; when your wife refuses to explain why she doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s drama. When the Palace refuses to explain why it dropped Nora Aunor from the list of National Artist awardees, that’s drama. All President Noynoy’s spokesmen could say was “It’s the President’s prerogative….”, which is exactly what we heard from President Gloria’s spokesmen a few years ago, the only difference being that she made dagdag, while Noynoy made bawas. I did read something about Nora’s exclusion being “in the national interest,” but it boggles the mind to figure out exactly what that means. I can understand defending the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal as being “in the national interest”; I can even understand rooting for Manny Pacquiao on fight day—temporarily setting all his other quirks and antics aside—as being “in the national interest.” But dropping Nora?

As I wrote in this corner a few months ago, I was on a large, multidisciplinary, second-level committee that endorsed Nora Aunor to a higher body (the NCCA and CCP Boards plus the National Artists); we endorsed Dolphy as well, and if I remember right, he and Nora got the same highest votes across the board. Granted that our recommendations were just that and subject to final approval upstairs, I feel among many others in the arts that we at least deserve a full and cogent explanation for all these pluses and minuses that take place in Malacañang. The Palace—and I don’t mean just the present occupant—has never been known to be a bulwark of artistic support and sensibility, if you look at funding for the arts in relation to everything else; if it never cared for or about the arts, why should it suddenly care—negatively at that—about Nora Aunor, whom the arts community clearly feels is deserving of its highest accolade? If you can’t help, at least don’t get in the way.

I’d been told by some Palace contacts that questions came up about Nora’s alleged drug use. OK, I said, it’s fair enough to raise these questions which presumably involve moral turpitude. But since when has it been fair to use morality as a standard for artistic excellence? We’ve had National Artists whose personal lives were hardly spotless, but whose art precisely may have been deepened and enriched by those encounters with their darker side. (Conversely, we’ve had National Artists who may present themselves as moral exemplars and accuse everyone else of some fatal shortcoming, but whose work is unremittingly mediocre and soporific.) Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Miles Davis, among many others, would never qualify for state honors in their countries (not that they ever cared) if our Malacañang’s standards were employed.

Last case in point: I wholeheartedly agreed with the NCCA when it protested the Palace snub of Ms. Aunor, but also wholeheartedly disagreed with the NCCA when it reportedly protested allowing the use of our national heroes’ names for such popular products as beer. (Think “Cerveza Rizal” or “Mabini Beer.”) The reason given by objectors was that it would be a sign of disrespect for these heroes to associate something as morally undesirable as alcohol with them.

Really? Which planet are we on? Didn’t our heroes drink beer and stiffer forms of alcohol—in spite (or dare I say because) of which they performed heroic deeds, anyway? Rizal complained that his fellow ilustrados in Spain drank and womanized too much, but that hardly meant that he was completely abstemious in either department. He didn’t care much for hard liquor, but drank beer (like me, on whom single malt would be a total waste). George Washington was a beer guy as well, and even famously left a handwritten recipe for his own brew (later marketed in an “Ales of the Revolution” line). So will the moral police please lighten up? If Nora’s good enough to be a National Artist, then Jose Rizal should be good enough to go on a beer bottle, and I’ll hoist many a cold Rizal in his own honor.

Heroes aren’t heroes because they’re perfect human beings; they’re heroes because—despite some truly terrible character flaws and peccadilloes (one of them even shot his wife, remember?)—they left something indelible to the national spirit and imagination, enough for us to think of ourselves as a nation. Heroes and National Artists (the real ones and the best ones) can do that; politicians—whether in prison or in the Palace—can’t.