Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

SJackson

Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

american-gothic

My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 221: Teaching the Millennials

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Penman for Monday, October 17, 2016

 

 

THERE WERE no marching bands, greeting cards, or fireworks to mark the event, but World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. As unofficial or secular holidays like Mothers’ or Grandparents’ Day go, it’s a relatively new one, proclaimed by UNESCO in 1994 to draw attention to the key role teachers play in molding the citizens of every country. My calendar shows that I did nothing remarkable that Wednesday, my day off from teaching, so I very likely spent it on a foot-massage-movie-and-dinner date with Beng. But surely teaching would have crossed my mind, as it does every day, because we keep preparing for our next class even in our idle hours, wondering how we can make our students’ encounters with us more interesting and memorable.

I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot more lately, first because of the recent deaths of some valued mentors and colleagues. Just over the past month, our department lost two of its stalwarts—Professors Sylvia Ventura and Magelende “May” Flores. I’ve written quite a bit in this corner about Sylvia, my Shakespeare teacher, who fired up my enthusiasm for Elizabethan drama and poetry. May was an English-language specialist and textbook author, a sweet, imperturbable lady with a caring smile for everyone. (Continuing the tradition, May’s son Emil also teaches with the department and has become one of our prime experts on science fiction and creative nonfiction.)

The second reason is my own impending retirement, less than three years hence. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three decades since I gave up my PR job at a government agency to devote the rest of my life—as I told myself then—to studying, writing, and teaching. I never did become much of a scholar—I guess I did become the writer I wanted to be—but even this close to the end of an active career, the teacher in me is still a work in progress.

That’s because every teaching day is a new performance, even if—like it would be for a theater actor—the script may essentially be the same for courses you’ve taught for years. Every new batch of students brings with it a new mix of challenges—even, over the decades, a generational drift to adjust to. For example, a teacher can’t simply blame millennials for their lack of a historical memory, which we helped create; I try to get them interested in the past not for the past’s sake, but to show them how an appreciation of the past can help their future.

Teachers, in other words, have to keep learning about their students and their interests, so lessons remain fresh and relevant, rather than boring incantations regurgitated from ages past. We need to relate the lesson to the student’s present realities, which may seem daunting if you’re talking about, say, a 19th-century short story about the French bourgeoisie, but which can be done with a little imagination (in this case, I’d begin by talking about the Filipino middle class and its aspirations—“Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”).

But as vital as it is to connect directly with millennials, it’s just as important to remind them that there are many things in this world that may seem to have little or nothing to do with them that will still affect their lives—in other words, that we’re still motes in the grand scheme of things, and that Nature can be profoundly indifferent to our noisome plaints and woes.

That’s a harder lesson to impart, even to older students—to any person who hasn’t encountered something much larger than himself or herself, like a World War, or martial law, or a terrorist attack. In a me-centered universe, no one wants to feel disempowered, so I then have to challenge them into getting out of themselves and enlarging the sphere of personal actions they can take to improve not only their own future, but also that of their fellowmen.

Back when we ourselves were freshmen and sophomores in the early 1970s, this message came down to us in the exhortatory slogan “Serve the people!” Exactly how seemed a lot simpler to figure out back then, when a predatory dictatorship was looming over everything and everyone (a dreadful specter I thought I’d escaped forever). Today a young person’s options are far richer and more complex, with all manner of personal advocacies, NGOs, weekend CSR programs, and Facebook groups competing for one’s political attention.

But whatever the chosen means may be, the overriding need for building empathy remains, for leading young urban, middle-class Filipinos to see, to appreciate, and to grow their stake in a future that they share with the millions of others who live unlike them, many without the opportunities that they enjoy. We can’t truly be a nation—much less a Christian one—if we continue to dismiss the bullet-riddled bodies of the poor as trash because we find nothing in common with them.

A teacher’s job is to help students draw the line between two points, including and especially the most seemingly disparate ones. That includes the line between teacher and student, between student and student, and between student and society. If that’s all I’ve done these past three decades, I can retire happy.

 

 

AND NOW for something liberative. According to the exhibit notes, “Ebarotika! (You are Erotic, Eve) follows the story of Eve who dared venture into the forbidden. Her defiant act opened knowledge’s connection with sexuality, the knowledge of one’s sexual and erotic desire. But it also resulted in shame and punishment. Thus, many of us cover and hide our sexual and erotic life. Those who are bold enough to come into the open are subjected to stigma, discrimination, and death. Sexuality and the erotic are a source of life, joy, and pleasure. They are not objects of fear, horror, and anxiety. They must be opened, shared, and celebrated instead of being censored, concealed, and criminalized.”

Curated by Lia Torralba, Ebarotika! features 19 Kasibulan artists: Yasmin Almonte, Lot Arboleda, Chie Cruz, Cecil de Leon Escobar, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Anna Fer, Lorna Fernandez, Kristin Garanchon, Lorna Israel, Amihan Jumalon, Nina Libatique, Eden Ocampo, Jonabelle Operio, Fel Plata, Rebie Ramoso, Benay Reyes, Doris Rodriguez, Christine Sioco, and Lia Torralba.

It opened last Saturday, but will run until November 23 at the Sining Kamalig Art Gallery located on the Upper Ground Floor of Ali Mall in Cubao, Quezon City. See you there!

 

Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.

Penman No. 154: Teaching English to Filipinos

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Penman for Monday, June 22, 2015

I HAD a great time last week with the English faculty of New Era University in Quezon City, who had invited me to speak at their three-day workshop on “Enhancing English Teaching Practices.” For three days, I met with a very lively group of about 30 to 40 college and high school teachers of English, talking about writing, reading, and teaching the language in today’s Filipino classroom.

I was backstopped in these discussions by the young and very sharp Ms. Cyndriel “CY” Meimban, who had taken her high school at New Era before doing an English degree with us at the University of the Philippines and then a master’s in Education at Arizona State U. CY—who also just happens to be the daughter of an old friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Dr. Adriel Meimban—took a break from her teaching duties at Northern Arizona University to help out her fellow teachers at NEU.

It was my first visit to the NEU campus near Commonwealth Avenue, which was rather ironic because we’ve lived on the UP campus just across that avenue for the past ten years. The NEU is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo complex and is run by the church, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s open to all faiths. There’s a substantial Muslim population in that very area, for example, and many students from that community attend New Era.

We held our workshop in the new Professional Schools building, which housed NEU’s colleges of Law and Medicine, among others; more prominently, along Commonwealth Avenue, the College of Evangelical Ministry which Dr. Meimban (a former president of NEU) now heads trains young INC ministers, including about a hundred students from overseas—Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Europeans, among many others; I was surprised to be addressed by a young black man from South Africa in perfect Filipino. I was, in other words, in a very rich cultural and linguistic environment, in which language is used not just to express oneself or get jobs but to propagate the faith.

Otherwise, the workshop attendees voiced the same problems I’ve heard elsewhere: a clear decline in English proficiency not just among students but teachers as well; the lack of new materials in the syllabi, particularly in literature classes, as well as teaching guides for these materials; and the persistence of outdated approaches to the reading and teaching of literature and of English itself.

I began my presentation with something I always emphasize when I teach English in UP, especially in my American Literature class: we study and teach English not because we want to be Americans, British, or some other Anglophone people, but to become better Filipinos. We learn English and study other literatures in English to gain insights into and understand how these other societies operate and how certain human values and truths transcend national and social boundaries. Thereby, we should lose our unfamiliarity with and our awe of the foreign, empowering ourselves as citizens of the world.

I did a module on creative writing—focusing on fiction and nonfiction—as a way of showing teachers how writers think and work, so they can themselves become writers or at least understand what writers do and how they do it. In reading and teaching literature, I went over several poems and stories, and asked my audience to draw up a list of questions that could or should be raised about the text beyond “What’s the moral lesson?”

I emphasized the importance of considering and discussing form and technique as much as content and meaning as a way of seeing how language works, on the level of the sentence or even the word. I argued for the enjoyment of language for its own sake—in effect, for the study of literature as an exercise in pleasure as much as in education.

The problem with too many literature classes is that they’re taught as anything but literature—as philosophy, as religion, as politics—rather than as the imaginative play on words that lies at the heart of literature. When teachers march into class and declare, “Class, this is what this poem means, and believe me because I’m the absolute authority on it,” students and even teachers miss out on the fun of discovery, of teasing out sense from seeming chaos.

Inevitably, the question of a “language policy” came up. Would students benefit from the imposition of an “English-only” policy? Was it all right (or was it criminal) for a teacher of English to resort to Filipino when teaching English, or literature in English?

I went out on a limb here—and I’m sure that what I’ll say here will turn many a reader livid with consternation and disgust—but I said that, even as a former chair of the UP English Department, I’ve always been opposed to an English-only policy, because it’s silly and it simply doesn’t work.

We study English—and try to master it—because it serves us well in communication and in business, especially in a global sense, but to deliberately throttle our use of other languages (of which we have an enormous wealth) in the notion that it will somehow make us better users and speakers of English is downright stupid. I’ve yet to meet someone who now speaks and writes perfect English by having paid 5 centavos for every Filipino word he or she used. Most writers of my generation are happily bilingual or even trilingual, and we don’t get our languages or linguistic registers mixed up; what’s key is appropriateness—which language and which register is best for which occasion?

I would even argue that code-switching from English to Filipino can work in the teaching of English, and especially of literature in English, if it relaxes the non-Anglophone student and allows him or her to speak—and even to make a mistake, which should also be encouraged (and gently corrected) without too heavy a penalty. Patience and understanding, rather than force and sheer authority, have always gotten me better results in the classroom. I hope my colleagues in New Era University got a taste of that treatment, and that they enjoyed the experience.

Penman No. 118: To Teach Is to Persist

To-teach-is-to-persist-Penman-Butch-DalisayPenman for Monday, October 13, 2014

 

SOMEONE REMINDED me that World Teachers’ Day was celebrated earlier this month, on October 5. I forgot about it because I was—I am—overseas, on sabbatical leave until mid-2015. In our department at the University of the Philippines, we normally get just one sabbatical leave over the course of our teaching career, and typically, professors take it a few years before retirement. I’m five years away from that crossroads, so this is a good time to be away from the classroom and to recharge, which is what the sabbatical leave was originally designed for.

Wikipedia tells us that “Sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a ‘ceasing’) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, a sabbatical lasts a year.”

This sabbatical, however, is shaping up to be anything but a vacation, or a rest break. I may be cool and dry in an America turning pretty with the onset of autumn, but my workload is as tropically toxic as ever, with several books to complete, columns and articles to write, faculty advising duties to perform, and sundry interests—totally and thankfully unscholarly—to pursue.

I do get a respite from the classroom, but, perhaps ironically, that’s the part of teaching I miss the most. As we celebrated World Teachers Day, I also realized that I was marking my 30th year of teaching this November, and I asked myself what three decades of teaching have taught me. After some reflection, it came down to this: to teach is to persist in the perfection of our humanity and our citizenship. That sounds awfully grand to the point of being pompous and pretentious—don’t we, after all, just grab a book, drag our feet to class, and preach bunkum for an hour to a roomful of people with the pulse rate of zombies to earn our lunch and gas money?

There are, of course, many days just like that in a teaching career, days that blur one into the other until the end of yet another semester. And at some point, it’ll get to you: your speech starts slurring and your eyes get glassy, and you can’t wait until the bell rings or the hour hand moves; you had a long rough night, the car needs new tires, the bills are piling up, your thoughts keep drifting back to Paris or Palawan, and the last thing you or your students want to talk about is disease and social order in William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.”

Maybe ten years ago, I had such a day at the very start of the semester, and without realizing it, I must have been so bleary-eyed that I gave off the impression of not quite being there. To my great shock and dismay, one student later blogged about her disappointment with what she had seen; she had expected a stirring performance from her professor on Day One. It was a wake-up call, and I woke up; I promised that student that I would do my best to live up to her expectations, and I hope I did; we’re good, and she’s since gone on to a promising career in writing.

What I became acutely aware of then was that every teaching day is a performance, not unlike a show a professional actor studies and rehearses for, with the additional challenge that one simply doesn’t repeat the previous show, but keeps adding to it, improvising when possible to adapt to changes in the composition and the mood of every audience. I mutter my first lines to myself on the steps up to my classroom, ticking off the day’s main points and questions in my head; I take a deep breath, step into the door, flash a brief smile, and the day begins. And like the pro I have to be, I’ve learned to take care of myself, so I can teach well—to stay healthy, to sleep well (especially before a class day), and to think of something new to say or to bring to the next class.

So we all have our bad days, but it’s precisely on days like these when we need to remind ourselves of what a tremendous opportunity we have to make this Tuesday or Wednesday one of the most memorable in our young charges’ lives, through something we say, an idea or an experience we share, that will turn a key and open a door in their minds. Only in teaching can an ordinary, even a boring, day suddenly become indelibly special, with nothing more than thoughts and words—and the teacher’s persistence and faith in every student’s potential for transformation into someone more aware, more human, more Filipino. Perfectability? It’s more about the effort than the goal—and I’m sure that whatever we do for our students, we teachers do for ourselves as well.

 

SPEAKING OF teaching, my department has asked me to invite all teachers and students interested or involved in translation issues to attend the 6th Asian Translation Traditions Conference (ATT6) to be held October 23-25, 2014 at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.

The official flyer says that “The rationale for the ATT series is to challenge the Eurocentric emphasis of Translation Studies, which is largely due to the “unavailability of reliable data and systematic analysis of translation activities in non-European cultures” (Hung and Wakabayashi 2005). The ATT series was initiated by Professor Eva Hung of Hong Kong in 2002. A small but successful workshop was held in London that same year, followed by well-attended international conferences in India, Turkey, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates. It is hoped that ATT6 will lead to theorizing on translation and developing methodologies on translation arising from the specific historical and contemporary contexts of Asia.”

Hmmm, I think that needs to be translated: this conference will explore the theory and practice of translation in an Asian context. For more details, please visit http://asiantranslation6.up.edu.ph/.

{Illustration by Igan D’Bayan of the Philippine Star.)

Penman No. 76: A Lesson in Description

Penman for Monday, December 9, 2013

 

NOW AND then I walk my students in Creative Writing through a lesson in description, which—as I’ve often noted in this corner—is at best always more than a rendition of the physical setting and the people and things in it. In the hands of a skilled or a gifted writer, a plain object can acquire a strange and memorable luminosity. Sometimes all it takes is the uncommon but logical and precise choice of a word, such as when William Faulkner describes a campfire as being “shrewd,” struggling and managing to keep alive despite the wind. At other times good description requires the writer to step back and to set things in a larger context, balancing fine detail with the broader sweep of memory and understanding.

I don’t even need to draw on the likes of Faulkner or Greg Brillantes or Kerima Polotan to demonstrate what I mean. Take this passage from a story submitted to my fiction class a couple of semesters ago by a young student named Katrina del Rosario, part of a story titled “Paying Respects.” Rather quiet in class, she more than made up for her reticence with this outpouring of brilliant prose:

The first Dayaos had been very successful farmers, and the land burst with green and trees and stalks and vines heavy with bright fruit; now only one or two Dayaos farmed the land, with the most magnificent of trees cut down to build houses. The elders remembered entire lives lived underneath the shadows of trees and grown roofs of vine, childhoods spent working the fields. They did not remember it as work. They remembered instead the bits of sugarcane that could no longer fit into carts and the sap sticky on their chins as they tore off strips of the bark with their teeth; getting lost in entire walls of tall grass that needed to be cut down; the cool of the mud and manure against their knees in the middle of a field exposed to all the ghastly splendor of a high sun; as small children, play was pretending to chop wood for the hearth and desiring to be old enough to pound the rice, watching in awe as their mothers tossed the grains into the air like a high wave and catching it again, cooking kangkong in hot water in their small toy pots made of clay. Everything they needed could be found on trees, in the fields. They had been perfectly comfortable. They were never hungry. Home was where the land began, and ended; living was the certainty of land and its fruit.

What’s even more interesting about this example is how little use it makes of adjectives and adverbs—the crutches that beginning writers often employ to carry the burden of description (“he snarled angrily,” “the bright, sunny morning,” etc.). “Write with nouns and verbs!” I keep reminding my students.

There are many ways of describing the same scene, but one approach I offer student writers is the option of gauging one’s emotional and psychological distance from the subject, and rendering the scene accordingly.

Depending on your purpose, you can choose to describe a person, thing, or place in one of several alternative modes. Your purpose, of course, will depend in turn on the kind of fiction or scene you are working on. I made up the following examples (so you’ll forgive me if they sound cheesy) to illustrate these alternatives.

What I call the technical/objective mode is strictly that, a seemingly factual, no-frills rendition of the scene, as a police report might put it:

The apparition was reported by a male witness, 45 years old, a farmer and a native of the town of Libmanan, Camarines Sur where previous sightings were said to have occurred. The man, Angelo Camagay, described what he saw as a woman in her early thirties, about 5 ft. 4 in. tall, and with distinctly Caucasian features: light brown hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. She was clothed in a full body-length white robe of soft material; Camagay could not remember seeing footgear of any kind. She appeared before him at about 5:45 am on the opposite bank of a stream where he had paused to draw water in his bamboo container, prior to working in the fields.

Somewhat warmer and more detailed is the neutral/realistic mode. It’s still a fairly straightforward description without much emotional coloring, but we see things more vividly:

Augusto dipped the thick, three-foot length of bamboo trunk into the water; it had been severed at the nodes, with a hole cut into the top and a wooden handle attached to one side. Now the cool, clear water gurgled into the hole as Augusto held the container down, feeling the stream swirl around his wrists and the bamboo struggle to keep afloat. Later, in the heat of noon, the same water would slake his thirst and wash the paddy mud off his hands. Augusto looked up; it might have been a bird bursting out of the trees that caught his eye; but it was a woman on the opposite bank, blinding in her pure white robe. She, too, was white of skin; her hair was a light brown, and she stood closely enough for him to see that her eyes were blue. He could not see her feet, which were lost in the lush grass. She seemed younger but somewhat taller than his wife. Augusto knew that in all of his forty-five years in Libmanan, he had never seen anyone like her; but some of his townmates had, and now he believed them.

And finally—though perhaps with the greatest degree of difficulty—one can go into the lyrical/romantic mode, which involves a certain degree of abstraction and sublimation, and certainly a more pronounced attitude, not to mention some linguistic dexterity:

Rough the palms that trapped the water, brown the arms that fought its surge. Come into my bamboo cup of cups and fill me in my driest need, my limpid blood of morning. Come. And Augusto looked up for an instant, thinking that a great white bird had exploded in the trees, flushed out by his presence. But no bird there, no stark familiar creature of his town’s well-traveled woods. Maria, Ave Maria, oh fair oh pure oh thou footless light disconsolate. Eye of sky, hair of corn, I come to you. And bathed in her sudden radiance, Augusto thirsted as he had never had, but as others had, and now he saw, and now he knew.

Whichever mode the writer employs, he or she should remember that the best description always does more than physically describe: it prepares and conditions us for what is about to follow, and, working with the narrative, provides a context against which we can understand characters and their situations better.

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on the forgotten master Constancio Bernardo—whose 100-year retrospective dazzled us when we attended its opening last Wednesday—prompted the following recollection from the Davao-based poet Ricky de Ungria, who also paints and draws occasionally:

“My first teacher in the arts was Ms. Katy Bengzon of DLSU. I took a summer class there in Taft when I was still in high school and copped a prize for a watercolor of mine. My second teacher was Constancio Bernardo. My father enrolled me in a summer class of his at the old CMLI gardens somewhere in Quezon City. He taught me how to do landscapes in watercolor. In fact in one of my old sketchpads he showed me how to do shadows of leaves on trees. Very calm, soft-spoken and gentle man, as I remember now. All this to tell you how much I appreciate your piece on him today because I knew so little of him.”

Penman No. 51: A Kick in the Pants

Editing

Penman for Monday, June 17, 2013

MORE THAN a couple of times this past summer, in nearly all the writers’ workshops I attended as a lecturer or panelist—in Baguio, Hong Kong, Dumaguete, and Iligan—I found myself saying the same thing to some hapless fellow. I said it as nicely but as firmly as I could: “This needs a kick in the pants.”

By that I didn’t mean that the story in question deserved to be tossed into the trash bin. Workshop panelists of yore were wont to say such hurtful things, if only to watch the fellow on the hot seat squirm and burst into bitter tears, but I’d like to think that we’re long past that kind of cruelty. We do our best to be more helpful these days, and my comment was made in that benign spirit, as unfriendly as it may have sounded.

So what exactly was my beef?

It had to do with an observation I’ve often raised in this corner in respect of much of the new writing by young people that I come across in my classes and in workshops. And that’s the frustrating fact that many young writers don’t know what a real story is—a complete, fully rendered, emotionally engaging and satisfying story, the kind of story you’d like to read over and over again, and that leaves a welt on your memory for years afterward.

Here’s what I keep seeing young writers do: they’ll detail a character and a situation to bits, explaining all manner of complication besetting their hero. They can do this very well, being in possession of an English honed by TV, Hollywood, and Starbucks, an English they don’t just write but speak in everywhere they go.

But when things just begin to get really interesting—somewhere on Page 9, when something you didn’t expect looks like it’s just about to happen—the author pulls the plug and declares the story over, as if to dismiss the reader with a coy “That’s enough.” The idea seems to be that this intensely focused, microscopic investigation of a character and a problem—say, a young woman’s ironic inability to make meaningful connections to others, despite the fact that she works in a call center—is enough.

But it’s not—there’s been loads of exposition, but the story hasn’t really moved far beyond us knowing who this person and what her problem is. We’re still in the problem, which the author has worried like a bad tooth, but it hasn’t really been brought to a point of real drama—the kind of drama that gives us headaches and heart palpitations because we’re that engrossed in the conflict and its possible outcome. But how many stories written today leave you breathless like that, aching to turn the page?

Too many drafts I’ve seen resort to abrupt conclusions—premature ejaculations, if you will—because of the writer’s unwillingness or inability to take real risks with the story, indicating either a fear of the unknown (which no real writer can afford to have) or, in some cases, a lack of the kind of emotional maturity and sophistication you need to be able to navigate the dimly lit paths the human mind and heart can take. Instead of producing real dramatic substance, many young writers depend on tricks of language—on witticisms, for example, instead of wisdom—to carry the story.

And please don’t tell me they’re just trying to be “postmodern.” I know and can enjoy a good postmodern story when I see one—such as Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” or Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl”, both of which I teach in my short story class. Postmodern stories have a very sharp edge—they need to, to gut the conventions that came before them. A poorly executed traditional story doesn’t bring it one step closer to being postmodern.

Just for the exercise, let me take up an example of the fully rendered, fully dramatized short story that I’ve been adverting to: “Paul’s Case,” written by Willa Cather in 1905. The story is set in Pittsburgh—even then already wallowing in industrial grime—where the artistically-inclined 16-year-old Paul is dreaming of bigger things, and spends his time as an usher in the theater, pretending to be bigger than who he really is. Now, many young writers would stop there in the theater scene, content to mark the irony between the glittering stage and the sooty reality of Pittsburgh outside. Not Cather: she forces Paul into a real dilemma by putting a large sum of money in his hands—money his father expects him to deposit in the bank; at this point, Paul snaps and buys a train ticket to New York City, the paradise of his fantasies. This would be Ending B for many writers, thinking that it’s enough for Paul to decide to leave Pittsburgh, come what may.

But again, not Cather: she brings Paul to New York, where he lives it up like a prince for a week, buying up clothes and treating himself to fancy meals, until the inevitable news comes that he is wanted as a fugitive and that his storybook life will soon come to an end. This should be good enough for Ending C: a long, last wistful look at New York’s dizzying opulence, then a step into an indeterminate future. But Cather goes further, not content with ambiguity: she brings Paul out to some desolate backyard out of town, where he makes a final if foolish gesture of defiance, hurling himself in front of an oncoming train, at which instant “the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

That’s what I mean by pushing the narrative to its farthest limits, subjecting the character to intense pressure, indeed to the breaking point (although Paul arguably never breaks in his composure, meeting the end with inimitable style). While I generally don’t like and discourage ending stories with the death of the protagonist (many writers use death as a convenient way out rather than thinking the problem through), here the death comes as a logical conclusion, the enactment of the final scene in Paul’s theatrical conception of himself.

Or take the case of Kerima Polotan’s 1952 classic, “The Virgin,” where the schoolmarmish Miss Mijares meets a man who—despite being beneath what she imagines to be her social station—awakens her dormant desires. Most student writers today would actually end with that encounter, with Miss Mijares getting all worked up about this handyman who can fix wooden birds. But Polotan, of course, can’t be content with just setting things up; she brings man and woman together, in a jeepney on a rainy night, and drops them off where they both don’t expect to be, until “her flesh leaped, and she recalled how his hands had looked that first day, lain tenderly on the edge of her desk and about the wooden bird (that had looked like a moving, shining dove) and she turned to him with her ruffles wet and wilted, in the dark she turned to him.”

So how do you bring a story to that memorable point?

When I tell my students that I want to give them and their stories a kick in the pants, I could be meaning one of two things:

1. As I explain above, I’d like them to push their narratives to a point beyond the visible horizon, to that “somewhere we’ve never been” that even the capable writer himself or herself will not have predicted until he or she began writing the story. (I never plot my stories beforehand; I may have a vague notion of how it will end, but I’d rather let the story itself lead me at some point, so everything remains fresh and wonderful, rather than plotted and predictable. If I can plot it, someone else can, in the same way—in which case, why even bother?)

2. I’d like them to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in the cultural, social, and economic life of the nation. I suspect that this is, indeed, the deeper problem, one of cultural illiteracy and alienation: our young writers, especially those who grew up in privileged surroundings, know and may even care little about the rest of society, and therefore can’t have much to say about the world beyond their own gated villages and schools. Again I can appreciate fantasy and its attractions, but I think it’s tragic if a Filipino teenager knows more about Hogwarts than Cubao. The challenge I pose to my young spec-fic writers is to bring Hogwarts to Cubao, to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

So, all together now: raise the stakes, and push the narrative! Bring us somewhere we’ve never been!

Penman No. 38: Why I Teach Creative Writing

English Class

Penman for Monday, March 18, 2013

LAST THURSDAY, I delivered the keynote speech at a conference of creative writing teachers held at the University of the Philippines, and this was part of what I told them:

I’m going to propose an idea that will probably sound like heresy today: I teach creative writing not to promote the science or the politics of literature, but to help enlighten the mind and ennoble the spirit. These are big words, but creative writing is a big thing. It has been a big thing for a very long time, and one might even argue that it got a lot smaller when it became an academic discipline, subject to the vagaries and vicissitudes of departmental politics, and the constant and sometimes annoying need to justify its existence to those who ask, with ill-concealed derision, “Can creative writing be taught?”

Let me humor that point for a minute. No one ever asks if music can be taught, or if ballet can be taught, or if painting can be taught—and yet, in all of these artistic endeavors, a mentor-mentee relationship has been the practice if not the rule for ages. It may be that writing is a more solitary act, and indeed, until the 20th century, was something self-taught, and people like Shakespeare and Nick Joaquin wrote without the benefit of a BACW or an MFA.

But most people aren’t Shakespeare and aren’t Nick Joaquin, and we’re no longer in the 17th or even the 20th century. Genius can take care of itself; most people can’t, particularly in a time when what are seen to be the more practical necessities of life militate strongly against a young person’s decision to choose a life of art. This, I believe, is the social function of artistic education today—the preservation and promotion of art as a vital human enterprise, alongside the sciences and the professions, without which society would fail, in the absence of the self-critical mirror that the artistic imagination provides.

Those of us who teach creative writing—or music, or dance, or painting, and so on—should fight to claim our space in academia, not because we need the jobs (which of course we do), but because society needs us for its own well-being, as nurturers of our people’s imagination. Like life itself, each work of art emerges from a synthesis of method and mystery, and sometimes the happiest and most wondrous results arise from what may seem to be accident and serendipity. But as a social project, the production of art cannot be left to chance.

This is particularly significant in the context of a country and a society like ours, whose people remain in dire need of a sense of nationhood—a sense that can only be artificially defined if not distorted by politicians, but more authentically apprehended by artists. The stories, poems, essays, and plays that our students write are this generation’s understanding of who and what we are, and this has been one of the key principles of my own teaching of creative writing: to help the student find not only himself or herself, but to find himself or herself in the community of others, in the life of the nation.

Thus, this semester in my graduate fiction class, I have asked my students to write about characters decidedly unlike themselves, to explore a milieu larger than their immediate and familiar surroundings. “Write about what you know” is what we often tell them, and that’s fine for starters; but I like to push this further and to suggest, as the title of one of my books says, that the knowing is in the writing, that they will never really know their subject until they’ve written all they could about it, until they’ve stood at the edge of the unknown and made that headlong freefall into the abyss of the human condition.

In this respect, allow me to make some observations about the state of the art as I see it in our students’ work. As a writer and a teacher of creative writing, I’ve been privileged to come across the work of some of our best young writers today—in my classes, in workshops, and in literary competitions—and to note their strengths and weaknesses.

The strengths are rather obvious to me—most notably, sharp and felicitous language. It always surprises me how—at a time when it’s become customary to deplore the deterioration of the language skills of our young people—new writers keep emerging who can use English with a mastery and confidence I didn’t have at their age. I suppose that comes from an earlier and more natural affinity with English, which many Filipino writers of this post-martial law generation not only write but think and speak in—at home, at school, at work, at play.

Another hallmark of our younger writers—not only in English but in Filipino and other Philippine languages as well—is their awareness and deployment of more contemporary literary theories that have done away with the stodgy realism of old, and value freshness of approach and cleverness of idea. They write in and from the margins, employ unusual points of view, play around with their use of time, and assume a variety of voices. They cross genres, mix languages, and generally don’t seem to care or worry too much about what other people might think of their work (except for readers of their own generation), and about whom they get published by.

That’s all well and good, but let’s go to the downside of things.

The most persistent shortcoming I’ve noticed in my students’ work is their inability or unwillingness to go beyond the safe and the familiar, to push the story to the farthest limits of its dramatic possibilities. They can take risks with treatment and technique, but in terms of the human drama at the core of the piece, they fall short. In other words, they’re great at writing scenes, sketches, and setups—vignettes that define a character or a situation—but, with a few outstanding exceptions, they won’t go over the edge and take us somewhere we’ve never been. They may be technically polished and even perfect, but they are immemorable and add little to our understanding of ourselves as Filipinos. They don’t connect to a larger audience beyond the university, making what we do seem even more esoteric and irrelevant to many. We often talk in these corridors about the need to popularize science, but what about the popularization of art?

Now, I’m not making a pedestrian demand for our art to be simple and accessible, or to be held to a standard of social relevance as the measure of excellence. I firmly believe that art is intrinsically elitist, even if its aims may not be. Whether among the most common folk or the most privileged, only a few possess the sensibility and the skill to create art.

All I’m asking for is for us to encourage our students to see writing not only as a means of self-expression but as a form of engagement with the larger human community—a love letter, as it were, to the world at large, perhaps full of pain and disappointment and yet remaining open to appeal and negotiation, if not reconciliation. This, I suppose, is what I meant by “enlightenment and ennoblement”—a recognition and admission of oneself, through art, as a human being, with all of its attendant privileges and responsibilities.

That’s the challenge you and I have to pose and, ourselves, to meet: to help produce not only great art, but great art that somehow matters. By “matters”, I don’t mean that it will foment a revolution the next day or the next year, but that it will, one way or another affirm and enrich our sense of humanity and community.

The fact is that very few of our students—counting even the CW majors—will go on to become writers for life. That’s all the more reason why their brief encounters with us should be memorable ones. No matter how poorly conceived or executed, a work sincerely presented for workshop by a student still represents an act of the imagination, which deserves respectful consideration. The best students will benefit the most, taking our admonitions to heart in the same way that I can still remember what my writing teachers told me. From Mrs. Vea, my English teacher in high school: “Good writing doesn’t depend on your mood.” From Franz Arcellana: “This is good, but it needs rounding out.” From my American professor Nick Delbanco: “Don’t forget the narrative line!” What have we told our students that they will remember 40 years hence?

I have always believed that every student has at least one good story, poem, or essay in him or her—and if we draw that out of them before they move on to become lawyers, engineers, and politicians, then we shall have done our duty. If we can inspire the best of them to consider taking the same breathless gamble we took in devoting ourselves to the life of words, then we shall have gone beyond performing our teacherly duties to helping secure the future of the Filipino imagination.