Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

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Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN nearly 20 years since I received the news that I had won the biggest writing grant of my life. I was 45 and raring to work on my second novel, and had a germ of an idea, suggested by the sad parade of caskets that arrived almost daily at Manila’s international airport. I knew that our overseas workers and their experience was the big story of that period, but I needed time away from teaching to get started on the project, so I applied for a new grant that was being offered at the University of East Anglia in the UK for what was described then as “a novel of Asia.”

The UEA website describes that fellowship thus: “The David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship is a unique and generous annual award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about the Far East to spend a year in the UK, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The Fellowship is named for its sponsor Mr. David Wong, a retired Hong Kong businessman who has also been a teacher, journalist and senior civil servant, and is a writer of fiction. The Fellowship was launched in 1997 and the first Fellow appointed from 1st October 1998.” (Collections of short stories are now accepted in lieu of the novel. The UEA and its writing program are acknowledged to be the leader in the field in the UK, with Booker Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Anne Enright among their distinguished alumni.)

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I honestly can’t remember now how I chanced upon the Wong Fellowship—these were the early days of the Internet in the Philippines, when modems screeched like mating cats before connecting over phone lines—but Beng and I soon packed our bags for the privilege of a lifetime. It would take a few more years, but that idyllic journey eventually gave birth to Soledad’s Sister, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and published in 2008. I was only the second Wong Fellow, and after me, in 2003, another Filipino followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy, now based in Denmark, whose novel Sweet Haven also began taking shape in Norwich.

Last month came the terrific news that yet another Filipino, Nathaniel Go, had been named the new David T. K. Wong Fellow, besting dozens of other applicants from around the world. I was so elated by the news that I sought out Nathan, as he prefers to be called, by email, and got this story from him:

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“I was born and grew up in Davao City. This is quite a statement to make nowadays as Davao has suddenly received a lot of attention. But back then, I remember a quiet and laid-back existence, highlighted every summer with the sickly sweet smell of mangoes, as our neighbor who owned a farm, would bring in basket after basket from their harvest. When it rained, water buffaloes would sometimes stop traffic outside our house by bathing in the large potholes filled with mud. The best thing to have come out of such a childhood, of course, is my love of books. Our bookshelf was quite small and included such juvenilia as the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Choose Your Own Adventure was also a hit back then. The Bible was a staple. Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the gold standard. Eventually, once I developed a taste for books I quickly sought new titles from our school library.”

Nathan was a voracious reader, so much so that his school librarian once dared him to bring a truck to borrow the whole collection. He left home at 16 and went to Ateneo de Manila, but moved to the US shortly after to join his siblings in California, where he finally got to study what he had always wanted—literature, linguistics, political science, and screenwriting. He worked briefly as a paralegal before giving in to his muse and studying fiction at the University of Michigan and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Nathan has taught creative writing at the Braille Institute. He will be working on his first novel in Norwich. But as far as he’s come in the world, Nathan still writes about the Philippines and still considers it his home.

“I go back every now and then and I’m always surprised by how fast things are changing, but how—underneath the changes—the fundamental things remain the same,” he says. “These fundamental things are hard to articulate, but I guess that’s where my stories come in. As an author, I straddle an identity and the space between a true insider and outsider of the Philippines. I write about Davao and I write about the small Filipino Chinese community there that I belong to, because that’s the kind of stories I’d never read while growing up.”

Three Filipino fellows in 19 years is surely worth cheering about, but I can’t help thinking—having seen the talent out here—that we (and other homegrown Southeast Asians) could be sending more fictionists to Norwich, and Nathan’s triumph is a welcome reminder of that wonderful possibility. For more information about the David T. K. Wong Fellowship, look here: https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship.

(Pictured on top are the Wong Fellows at a reunion with David T. K. Wong in London, 2008. Image of Nathan Go courtesy of UEA.)

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. 56: Cheers for The Mango Bride

mango bride final cover copyPenman for Monday, July 22, 2013

IT ISN’T every day or even every year that a Filipino author gets published by Penguin Books—I can think of only Jose Rizal, Jose Garcia Villa, Jessica Hagedorn, and Miguel Syjuco, off the top of my head—so when Marivi Soliven told me a couple of years ago that her new novel The Mango Bride (New York: NAL Accent, 2013) had been picked up by a division of Penguin, I immediately sent her a congratulatory note. But I didn’t realize the extent of Marivi’s achievement until I received a copy of the published book and read the novel in a mad dash to the ending.

Again, that doesn’t happen to me very often; given my crushing workload, it usually takes me weeks and even months to finish a new book, which is why I habitually decline invitations to do book reviews, not wanting to keep the authors and publishers waiting interminably. But Marivi’s case was different, because I was reading the book not as a beetle-browed critic, but as a mentor and a friend; as it happened, Marivi—whose husband John Blanco teaches literature at the University of California in San Diego, where they’ve been living for many years now—was also my daughter Demi’s English teacher in UP, and since Demi herself moved to San Diego, we’ve all kept in pretty close touch.

All this chumminess and this moving around has a point, and it’s directly related to The Mango Bride, which deals with the powerful tides, both social and personal, that continue to deliver many thousands of our countrymen to America. It tracks two Filipino women—the to-the-manor-born Amparo Guerrero, who gets banished to Oakland following an unwanted pregnancy that threatens to bring shame and scandal on her family, and Beverly Obejas, a plucky girl who also ends up in Oakland following the well-traveled path of the mail-order bride.

There is, of course, more in common between these two women than meets the eye, and it will hardly be a spoiler to say that their trajectories will cross. The task of the novel’s plot is to bring these two seemingly very different characters together—Amparo is a carefree college coed, while the orphaned Beverly works as a waitress—and when they do, toward the novel’s explosive climax, the author completes a narrative coup, with both dramatic inevitability and irony.

But more than a story of individuals, The Mango Bride is also a story of Filipino families rich and poor, which is to say that it presents Philippine society as an unfolding telenovela—bitchy matrons, philandering patriarchs, wayward sons, gay go-betweens, suffering servants, and all. This is, unabashedly, the source of the novel’s power, its appreciation of life in its broad, harsh strokes.

But unlike a telenovela, Soliven’s masterful prose lends the novel a fineness of detail that extends the pleasure of reading beyond mere plot and character into language. Here’s how she presents Amparo’s first experience of sex (as novelists know, a sex scene is always one of the hardest things to do well, and do freshly): “If there was something Amparo learned that first night, it was that the rhythm of passion was deeply satisfying for its simple circularity. Mouths making pillows of opposing lips, the call and response of interlocking sighs, a passel of caresses, cascading one into the other as waves folding into sea foam. Afterward, they gathered the thin sheets about them and curled into each other, chin to chin, chest to breast, dozing twins in a cotton womb.”

There’s a brilliant scene where Amparo tries to tell her boyfriend Mateo that he’s gotten her pregnant, but an elephant—literally—strides into the picture, having escaped from a circus and running red lights all the way down EDSA. It’s unexpected pay-offs like this that keep lifting the novel above the pedestrian, that remind us of an important literary talent at work, one with an unfailing feel for her material, whether we’re in Forbes Park or North Cemetery or a grocery in Oakland.

There will, I expect, be some complaining over the coincidences that mark the plot, but even here the improbable seems fated, precisely because of the novel’s implicit message: that we are closer to each other than we think, and might do well to acknowledge and accept that closeness while we can.

Marivi says that she began the novel in 2008 in the frenzy of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—November, to most people) and completed it two years later. It won the Grand Prize for the Novel in the 2011 Palancas, but was extensively revised by Marivi for international publication.

If you want to buy the book and see if you can share my enthusiasm, it’s available at National Bookstore. But here’s the best part: if you want to meet Marivi herself and get her to sign your copy for you, she’ll be in town very soon for a series of readings and talks, thanks to NBS, which is sponsoring her visit.

She’ll be spending an afternoon with us in UP Diliman on Wednesday, August 7, from 2:30 to 4 pm at CM Recto Hall. The UP Institute of Creative Writing and the Department of English and Comparative Literature will co-sponsor the event, which is open to all. See you there!

SPEAKING OF new books, I was happy to have attended the recent launch of a rather unusual book—unusual because it’s a bilingual Spanish-English edition—titled La Oveja de Nathan (Nathan’s Sheep), by the late novelist Antonio M. Abad. Translated into English by Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes (a professor of Spanish at UP, and the lovely wife of our friend and literary kuya Greg Brillantes), the novel won the Premio Zobel in 1928, and was being published for the first time.

The Premio Zobel was initiated by the pioneering businessman Enrique Zobel de Ayala in 1920 to preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of Spanish in the Philippines in the face of what Nick Joaquin would have called unbridled sajonismo. The Philippines and Filipinos had imbibed English like it was God’s own drink, and bold measures had to be taken to ensure the survival of Spanish in the new American age. Over the next many decades, the Premio Zobel did just that, and more, granting recognition to the best literary works written by Filipinos in Spanish, as well as the most valuable cultural contributions made by Filipinos to the cause of hispanidad.

Abad’s novel was one of the earliest winners of the prize (which Prof. Brillantes herself would later win), and its present publication by the Premio Zobel Collection, the Filipinas Heritage Library, and Georgina Padilla y Zobel (Enrique’s granddaughter) could not be more timely, as it deals with Filipinos caught between powerful political forces.

I’d have to admit that Sra. Georgina’s thoughtfulness in sending over an invitation to my house, with my name and address hand-lettered with a fountain pen, was what convinced me to drive across town in rush-hour traffic to catch the launch. Of course, the late author’s son, the poet Jimmy Abad, is also a dear friend, and Jimmy’s moving poetic tribute to his father’s legacy (delivered, in customary Jimmy Abad fashion, straight from memory) was well worth the excursion.

Penman No. 26: New Novelist in Town

OFW AwardPenman for Monday, Dec. 23, 2012

IT’S ALWAYS a pleasure to welcome a new novelist into our ranks, and today will be one of those happy days when we acknowledge the arrival—literally and figuratively—of a new talent in our midst, Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, or just Almi to her friends.

Almi flew in from Chicago as one of 29 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas, which were given out last December 5 by President Aquino at Malacañang. I had met her at the ICOPHIL conference in Michigan last September, although she had introduced herself to me by email earlier, as a fellow Filipino eager to make contact with other writers in the US and the Philippines.

Last December 9, Almi also launched her first novel, The Fires Beneath: Tales of Gold (San Francisco: Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2012), at the Ayala Museum. The novel deals with how a poor man’s discovery of ancient gold in the Philippine South changes him, his family, and his community. I haven’t finished reading the book, but I’ve been much impressed by her sharpness of eye and precision of language.

Writing about Quiapo and Binondo, for example, Gilles observes that “In Quiapo, the Golden Mosque is flanked by the Church of the Black Nazarene while the Binondo Chinese worship at Our Lady of China. On the sidewalks surrounding both places, vendors set up storefronts assembled from canvas, corrugated metal, or pieces of plywood, displaying items promising an easier spiritual journey. ‘Bypass purgatory,’ the vendors hawk. ‘Take one step closer to paradise… at a fraction of retail.’ Most believe, all pray. Both acts of nature and man cause great suffering. Metropolitan Manila lies beneath sea level and all it takes is one bad rainy season to show the inadequacy of the government’s flood control system. But the people take this all in stride. They buy both prayer beads and rubber boots.”

Since she was busy enjoying a well-deserved Christmas break with her family in the Philippines, I asked Almi to respond to a few questions I sent her by email, to map out the unlikely course she took to becoming a novelist from a professional background in the social sciences.

BD: Tell me something about yourself and your background.

AAG: I spent a few childhood years in Frankfurt, Germany where my father was assigned by the World Bank. Hence, English was the first language I learned formally. I was in premed psychology at UP Diliman and switched to AB psychology in my third year because I never intended to be a doctor and the subjects were getting harder. I graduated cum laude, and went to work for Sycip, Gorres, and Velayo (management consulting). After two years, I left for graduate school in the US, where I eventually finished a doctorate in social science, a master’s in political science, and a master’s in labor and industrial relations, all from Michigan State U. I also met my husband there, a doctoral student in economics, and got married there, on campus. My husband works in the telecommunications industry. I have a 22-year-old-son who works for Facebook and a 17-year-old daughter who’s starting college next year. I have a brother in Vancouver, Canada, and a brother and sister in the Philippines. My parents live in Manila.

BD: What started you writing?

AAG: I started writing poetry when I was about seven years old, and as I grew older I also started writing essays which were often published in the school newspaper. After graduate school, I joined the management faculty at De Paul University as adjunct professor, and taught at other area universities as well. At the same time, I had young children and my husband was traveling frequently. None of my childcare arrangements were satisfactory. After I grew dizzy and almost fainted in one of my classes (a night class for graduate MBAs), I went to see a doctor the next day and was diagnosed with hypertension, which apparently had been going on for quite a while. I then decided to quit teaching (I was teaching at campuses all over the Chicago area and would often get home around 11 at night) and try my hand at writing. My children’s book, Willie Wins, was published soon after, and I was hooked on writing. I started out writing for children since I had young ones of my own, and have published poetry, essays, short stories (one of which won a national award in the US), and plays for community theater. Now that my children are older, I thought I’d try something more adult, hence this novel.

BD: Where did the idea for this novel come from?

AAG: My friend’s sister was curator of the gold exhibit at the Ayala Museum, and she suggested I write a novel based on the discovery of the Surigao treasures. It took me about three years to finish, but I was working on other projects as well. I was fortunate that a video series of this story already existed, and I used that as reference.

I wanted the novel to reflect the tug between secularism and religiosity, and tried to delineate this struggle through my main characters (the gold discoverer and his family). Since I consider myself as a writer of the diaspora, I was careful to maintain a high level of authenticity about the Filipino experience (especially since the setting is the Philippines), while trying to appeal to American readers as well. Several chapters were workshopped at a master novel writing class led by a Northwestern University professor, and they were all white (no writer of color). While they liked the voice and style, they defined it as magical realism—a sad commentary on their knowledge of other cultures since the characters, setting, scenes were typical of a Filipino lifestyle. Some were also uncomfortable with my sentence construction (I tried to mimic the rhythms of Tagalog) but generally they liked the novel very much. In a writing workshop organization to which I belong, I’m the only Filipino writer (of English), and the only Filipino writer I know of actively publishing in the Midwest, so I feel I have to work extra hard to publicize my work and get the American readership to be more open to Filipino writing in English.

BD: What did your presidential award mean to you, and where do you go from here?

AAG: I write full time, but I guess you can say that days are filled with a lot of community organizing in addition to my writing projects. I’m very active in the Filipino American community in Chicago, and have a good working relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History. I try to promote Filipino culture whenever I can and am also invited by many schools to talk to students about multicultural writing. I’ve spoken at institutions and conferences all throughout the US, most notably at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

I’m humbled by the achievements of all the awardees—they are really exceptional people who have given so much back to the Philippines. I’m grateful that my writing has been recognized (Willie Wins is the most widely circulated Filipino American children’s book in the US, available in many schools and libraries, and is on the reading list of most multicultural publications), but I feel that a presidential awardee is obligated to continue to serve. My other passion is conservation and the environment (as president of the UP alumni group in Chicago, we raised funds for a marine study in UP Visayas), and I’m always trying to push both literacy and conservation. I’m encouraged by the feedback I get about my efforts because many have told me that I have motivated them to either write or start doing something to save the environment. I try to use the award to open doors so that I might do more, and the awards have been very effective in helping me to connect to others whom I might recruit for my cause.

AND SPEAKING of new novels, I’m awaiting an early copy of Marivi Soliven Blanco’s The Mango Bride, a comic romp through contemporary Filipino relationships, which will be released by Penguin in the US this coming April. Like Almi, the San Diego-based Marivi started out writing stories for children. Their examples should encourage more Filipinos, especially women, to make their mark in global publishing.