Penman No. 281: The Writer in Progress

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Penman for Monday, December 11, 2017

 

(THIS IS the second of three parts of my recent talk on “Celebrating Arguilla” at the Taboan Literary Festival in Bauang, La Union.)

“Midsummer” is of course the quintessential mating story, setting the tone for the younger Arguilla’s lyrical odes to rippling muscles and shapely breasts. The man’s strength is contrasted with the girl’s slenderness, and this dichotomy would repeat itself many times over in the stories ahead: in “Heat,” where the Adonis-like Mero captivates Meliang, she of the “long and supple thighs” and whose body exudes “a healthy sweetness.” We see it again in “The Strongest Man”, where the “tall and shapely Onang” enchants Ondong, whose muscles flow under his sweating skin. Mero and Meliang, Onang and Ondong—it’s tempting to think of Arguilla falling into a mannerism, a romantic formula after Amorsolo’s or Botong’s idealized physiques.

But he quickly disabuses us of our idyllic fantasies, because the same terrain in which so much beauty resides, in both the landscape and the bodies of its fecund youth, is shown to be awash with blood and riven by violence. The second story in the collection, right after “Midsummer,” is “Morning in Nagrebcan,” and it begins with a picturesque description of rustic serenity, depicting “the fine, bluish mist, low over the tobacco fields.” But this mood is soon shattered by the brutal killing of a puppy, and the awakening of the children to the harshness of life—indeed, to evil—in what may seem to be a bucolic paradise.

Sometimes the violence is more subtle and only hinted at. “A Son Is Born” is a long and almost anthropological account of family life and birthing rites, ending on the luminously optimistic note of a Christmas birth and a boy named Jesus, but it is shadowed by its very first line: “It was the year the locusts came and ate the young rice in the fields.” Life is difficult, but it goes on.

“How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” appears midway through the book, providing another tranquil respite, returning us to tall and lovely women meeting male approbation.

And then almost abruptly come the city stories, beginning with tales of marital stress and distress. Here I can sense the young writer and husband flexing his muscles and trying out new material and new approaches, experimenting with the kind of breathy, abstracted adoration you might find in Arcellana, acknowledging his broadening universe, with references to Picasso and Vanity Fair popping up in the prose. There’s even an attempt at comedy in “The Maid, the Man, and the Wife.” “The Long Vacation” is a melodramatic paean to loss, in the spirit of Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” but without its magic. In these so-called “marriage” stories, it is the brooding hulk of Elias, in the story of that name, that most comes alive, but this is the one story in that suite that returns to the countryside, as if to make the point that country folk can also lead terribly complicated lives and make terribly complicated decisions.

The last part of the book, which is divided into three, comprises the “socialist” stories, for want of a better description. “The Socialists,” “Epilogue to Revolt,” “Apes and Men,” and “Rice” return us to a rural setting, but this time with an explicitly political agenda, which is to awaken the reader to the inhuman exploitation of the Filipino farmer and worker of the 1930s.

“Caps and Lower Case” is often hailed as a searing indictment of labor exploitation, and indeed it pleads the case of its protagonist—a proofreader who needs the relief of just a small raise—with eloquent anguish, but ultimately it deals him a crushing defeat. “The Socialists” is a scathing satire of armchair socialism. “Epilogue to Revolt” deals with surrender and complicity, “Apes and Men” with industrial unrest, and “Rice” with hunger among the tillers.

These were all worthy subjects, of course, the stories reflecting the afterglow of the recent Sakdalista rebellion and other such uprisings in both country and city. Among writers then, the same tensions would simmer over what would be called “proletarian literature,” its standard held high by such avatars as S. P. Lopez and Arturo Rotor, and inevitably Manuel Arguilla. On the other side of the argument were ranged the likes of Jose Garcia Villa, A. E. Litiatco, and a young Nick Joaquin, who in a 1985 essay would dismiss proletarian literature as little more than that generation’s adoption of the latest American fad. It “failed to sweep the local scene,” Joaquin would chortle, “and the only writer of importance who may have been influenced by it was poor Manuel Arguilla—who got derailed.”

Arguilla’s avowals notwithstanding, however—and at the risk of committing blasphemy in the Vatican—let me opine that it would be a mistake to deify Arguilla as any kind of socialist icon. True, he embraced “proletarian literature,” but his proletarian stories are thoroughly depressing, their desperate protagonists broken and beaten, with the sole exception of “Epilogue to Revolt,” which is one of my favorites because it breaks the mold while remaining absolutely true to character and situation. His realism owes more to Charles Dickens than to Maxim Gorky.

Manuel Arguilla was, to me, very much a writer in progress—a writer still coming to terms with his material and his society, one who had explored the range of his talents and was arriving at a fusion of those extremes. Arguilla’s stories have to be read as a continuum, where country and city were beginning to come together in his artistic and political sensibilities. But then, all too soon, he died, leaving us to wonder if his stories could have taken a brighter and more hopeful turn in the postwar world he never saw.

 

 

 

 

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. 33: At the Literary Table

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Penman for Monday, February 11, 2013

I’M HERE in Dumaguete City for Taboan, otherwise known as the Fifth Philippine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of writers from all over the archipelago, and even a few parts beyond. Dumaguete, of course, is inextricably linked with Philippine literary history as the home of the first and longest-running writers’ workshop in the country—the Silliman Writers Workshop, based in Silliman University—which explains its proud and rightful claim to be the “City of Literature.”

Scores of the country’s finest writers, especially in English, have passed through Silliman’s portals (in Silliman’s case, these are real portals, as iconic and as symbolic as the Oblation is to the University of the Philippines), thanks largely to Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, who started the workshop in 1962 after their return from the United States. I myself might not have thought of going back to school after having dropped out for ten years and of taking up fiction seriously after laboring as a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Silliman workshop, which I attended in 1981.

So holding Taboan in Dumaguete was in many ways a logical homecoming, and the fact that festival director Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega (who now teaches at MSU-Iligan) is a Silliman alumna helped things along immensely. The university administration and the city government were very supportive, and the festival began on an appropriately celebratory note with a parade around the city on Thursday morning, led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

But it was the keynote address delivered shortly after by the Cebuano scholar and writer Dr. Resil Mojares that best reminded me why it’s important for Filipino writers and academics to go out of Manila and listen to what the rest of the nation has to say if writers are to help in achieving that sense of nationhood that’s eluded us for ages. Resil—whose level-headed scholarship and clarity of thought I’ve always admired—spoke on “The Visayas in the National Imagination” (there was some confusion about the topic, but in the end it didn’t matter).

He spoke of how complicated the writer-nation relationship can be: “A writer’s relationship to his or her country cannot be one of blind faith or easy self-love. I think there is much in what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says about his relationship to his native Peru that we can recognize as our own. ‘For me,’ Llosa says, ‘Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh, and full of the violence of passion… [a relationship] more adulterous than conjugal… full of suspicion, passion, and rages.’ Yet, for all these, Llosa confesses to a ‘profound solidarity’ with the country. He says: ‘Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet Cesar Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.”

That relationship can get even more difficult when the writer feels like a stranger or second-class citizen in his or her own country, as a writer working outside the national center might be made to feel. This dichotomy between the “national” and “local” (or “regional”) writer has been a longstanding point of concern and conflict in Philippine literature for which there have been no easy answers. Dr. Mojares couldn’t have illustrated the problem more clearly than in this excerpt from his keynote:

“Perhaps we have to bow to the historical fact that it is where power is accumulated and concentrated that the ‘nation’ is most effectively imagined. It is where the ‘local’ ascends to the level of ‘national.’

“The literary situation today is that writers and works have to be recognized in Manila for them to acquire the status of ‘national.’ The center exercises the power to canonize and consecrate. A Cebuano writer who publishes in a ‘vernacular’ magazine with a circulation of 30,000 is merely a ‘local’ writer, while one who publishes a book of English poetry in Manila with a print run of 750 copies is ‘national.’ So effective is Manila’s consecrating power that a writer may start out in Dumaguete or Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive.’ Dumaguete may be the ‘city of literature’ but it is not its capital.

“Some years ago, the poet-and-critic Virgilio (Rio) Almario asked me—with a hint of mischief and challenge—‘Where’s the new Cebuano poetry?’ I did not have a ready answer but assured him that there was a great deal of fresh, exciting work being done by young Cebuano poets. But Rio’s question did tell me that much of today’s Cebuano-language poetry—that circulates in manuscripts, poetry readings, small local publications, and Internet blogs—remains largely invisible outside of Cebu and Cebuanos, and that we (Cebuanos) have been remiss in defining and projecting to a wider audience what in this poetry is distinct, different, and deserving of ‘national’ attention. Yet, the encounter with Rio did remind me that indeed one has to be consecrated by readers and critics like Rio for one to acquire the status of ‘national.’ I say this without malice. Rio is a friend. But such is the politics of recognition.”

The discussion got even more lively in the plenary session following Resil’s talk, which was devoted to the topic of “Your Place at the Writers’ Table,” around the idea that while a national literature should ideally be inclusive, many writers still felt left out—not just because of the cultural and political distance between the center and the margins, but also because of the generational divide, and perhaps even of sheer snobbery on the part of “established” writers unwilling to yield ground to younger, fresher talent.

I’d meant to keep quiet and let others do the talking, but was prodded for my opinion on this “insider/outsider” argument, which I understand had been a hot topic online. Not being on Facebook, I caught on to it late, and composed a response that I circulated privately, from which I’ll quote:

Small as it is, Philippine literary society is indeed ruled in a way by cliques, barkadas, orthodoxies, and prescriptions. In some cases, these institutions and conventions may have made it difficult for new, alternative, and dissident voices to emerge and be heard.

I myself will indefensibly admit to being part of this ruling elite—I suppose by default, being the director of an institute of creative writing, a professor of literature, and a member of an NCCA committee that gives out grants. I’ve done well by the system (Silliman workshop, CW degree and MFA, Palancas, etc.) and the system, I think, has also done well by me.

But all this doesn’t mean that my mind is closed to new ideas or that I will shoot them down when I get the chance. Within the system, I have voted and even argued for writers and kinds of writing I personally don’t prefer, because I remain aware of what’s at stake, which is much larger than what I like. I have voted down my friends, denied them grants, and brought in people left out in the usual pollings , again because—as an old-time, squishy, hand-wringing liberal—I believe in fair play, imperfect as any cultural or political regime will always be.

By and large, the system works, if getting ahead the usual way is all you want: join a workshop, write like your mentors, win a few prizes, publish a book or two. But I keep reminding my students that this isn’t the only way to writing fulfillment and happiness, and that they’re free to choose other paths and listen to other gurus—but also, and again, that the alternatives won’t be easy. We all make our own choices—but we should do so with full self-awareness, mindful of the costs and benefits to ourselves and to society.

How important is writing to you? Whom or what do you write for? What do you expect to get out of writing? How do you want to be seen or remembered by others through your writing? I’ve answered all these questions for myself—the bottom line is that writing is my livelihood and profession; I’m less a romantic than a realist—but I can’t hazard an answer for others. As a member of the barkada, the best I can do is to enlarge the table and to bring others to it—if they even want to be there, in the first place; if they don’t, well, perhaps they shouldn’t mind too much if we dine in peace and enjoy each other’s company—and maybe even manage to write a good book or two on the side.