Penman No. 321: That “K” Factor

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Penman for Monday, October 1, 2018

 

I WAS  in Bangkok last week among a delegation of Filipino academics to attend the 8th meeting of the Korean Studies Association of Southeast Asia (KOSASA), and it was a good opportunity to reflect on the history and growth of Philippine-Korean relations, which have seen a major boost over the past 20 years. While economically driven, much of that growth has been cultural—let’s call it the “K” factor—which accounts for both the proliferation of little Koreatowns and Korean restaurants in major Philippine cities and my wife Beng’s insatiable addiction to Koreanovelas like Boys Over Flowers.

Younger Filipinos enamored of K-Pop probably won’t be aware of this, but our diplomatic ties with Korea (I mean South Korea, of course) will mark their 70thanniversary next year. Those ties were barely a year old when the Korean War erupted, and as an American ally, we sent a contingent of almost 7,500 soldiers to join the fight—the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK), which famously included a young lieutenant by the name of Fidel V. Ramos. After the war, Filipinos also contributed to the economic rehabilitation of South Korea. For example, Filipino engineers helped build the Jangchung Gymnasium—Korea’s first domed sports arena—that opened in 1963.

Korea has since given much back to the Filipino people. In 2013, the Korean government readily sent troops and NGO workers to help in rehabilitation and recovery projects after the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.

The Philippines has seen an influx of Korean tourists and migrants, who now make up 25 percent of total foreign arrivals, reaching more than 1.6 million in 2017. The Korean community in the Philippines is also flourishing, growing to over 93,000 residents as of 2017.

 For all these reasons, over the past decade, Korean studies in the Philippines have developed both in quantity and quality. With the Philippines hosting one of the largest expatriate Korean communities in the world, Filipino scholars are studying the Korean diaspora and interrelated phenomena in the Philippine context.

 The University of the Philippines leads in the study of Korean social sciences, humanities, and language in the country. Korean studies are lodged in four colleges in UP Diliman: the Asian Center, the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Center for International Studies.

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The Asian Center offers MA and PhD programs in Asian studies, which include Korean topics and concerns. Korean language courses were first offered by the UP Department of Linguistics in 1990 as an Asian language elective. Until recently, only four courses in Korean were offered in UP, but higher-level courses have just been added to the curriculum. The Center for International Studies also offers a Korea-related GE (General Education) course for undergraduates, now titled “Global Studies 197: From Kimchi to K-Pop.”

In 2016, UP launched the Korea Research Center (UP KRC) aiming to lead and harmonize Philipine-Korean research and link Korean academic institutions and Korean community organizations in the Philippines. It also publishes HanPil: Occasional Paper Series on the Philippines and Korea, which has now produced three issues. Bringing all of these resources together, the First Philippine Koreanist Congress was held on May 26, 2018.

UP’s engagement with Korean academic institutions is part of a broad and strong initiative on the part of UP to internationalize its offerings, its faculty and student body, and its academic and institutional network. While UP, in decades past, traditionally looked westward—particularly to the United States and Europe—for these connections, it has increasingly sought to strengthen its relations with Asian universities. Since 2012, we’ve sent 123 students and 14 faculty members from UP to South Korean universities for study. The 14 faculty members went there for their doctorates—again a marked departure from our old practice of sending our faculty to the West for their PhDs.

On a personal note, while I’m in no way a Korea expert, as a journalist and novelist I’ve maintained strong personal relationships with my Korean counterparts, and have participated in several literary conferences in Korea. (I’ll be returning there in November for a writers’ conference on Peace in Asia in Gwangju.) Time and again, in these meetings, I’ve realized how much we share with Koreans—in terms, for example, of our experience with martial law and our emergence from it. So what happened since, and what accounts for the palpable difference in our two economies? That’s what we need to learn from them.

Of course, we also have much to share with Korea. One of my best graduate students, Sandra Nicole Roldan, had one of her essays translated and published in the Korean literary journal ASIA a couple of years ago, where one of my short stories, “In the Garden,” was also published in Korean in 2015. They’re small starts, but hopefully this exchange will grow in the other direction. Right now, a visiting professor is teaching Filipino language courses at the Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS), laying the foundation for Philippine Studies there. Maybe Koreans will soon discover Sarah Geronimo and some of our best pop artists as well!

Penman No. 320: On Academic Freedom

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Penman for Monday, September 24, 2018

 

Let me dwell this week on the idea of academic freedom, which has been in focus again recently in the light of controversies involving conflicting ideologies on campus. It’s important because universities are the natural home of ideas, and therefore for clashes of ideas, which then take various forms of political and cultural expression.

Modern (and especially secular) universities stand on the bedrock of academic freedom, which at its simplest means one’s freedom to choose what to study and what to teach, and giving value to knowledge—not power, not money, not superstition—as our best guide to the way forward. That knowledge can be gained through research and reason, through experimentation, debate, and creative intuition. Hopefully that knowledge will yield better options for a thinking citizen.

That’s the basic concept, and while it sounds like something no one should quarrel with, the fact is that academic freedom has been under constant threat and attack over the past century, precisely because knowledge and its free expression can be dangerous to those in power. The challenges understandably often come from the Right, but even the Left—preternaturally imbued with a sense of moral righteousness—has not hesitated to throttle academic freedom when it feels justified, such as when neo-Nazis appear on campus in the US and Europe.

Two specific cases come to mind to illustrate both sides of this argument. The first (drawn from an unpublished history of UP) shows State power brazenly applied to stifle freedom of expression at the University of the Philippines.

In the early 1930s, law student and Collegian editor Arturo Tolentino got into a fight with Law Dean Jorge Bocobo over whether he could write about the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, which then-Senate President Manuel Quezon and Bocobo himself opposed. When the Collegian published a news item seeming to support the bill, Bocobo backed the Collegian adviser’s decision to stop printing the Collegian and to burn the 900 copies already printed, on the grounds that the Collegian was not supposed to publish political material. Tolentino appealed to President Palma, who upheld Tolentino on the basis of free speech. But Bocobo appealed to the Board of Regents, which was filled with Quezon allies, and they overturned Palma.

Dean Bocobo reprimanded Tolentino and threatened him with suspension and even expulsion if he kept violating the BOR ruling. But it was Quezon who was most infuriated by the whole affair, and his ire was unmistakably vented on Palma.

Only days after Palma upheld the Collegian’s right to discuss the HHC, the legislature came down hard on the university and imposed a new system of appropriation requiring an itemized budget. Quezon commended the Lower House for probing the finances of UP, stressing that the move was “a distinct service” to the university. Things got worse between Palma and Quezon, and when Palma finally resigned in fatigue after ten years of service, the BOR denied him a gratuity on some technicality, and denied him an honorarium as well. (When Palma died in 1939, however, Quezon stopped everything to be able to attend his funeral, at which he offered generous words of praise for his former adversary.)

The second case involves an aborted debate at Yale University in April 1974, which featured Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel prizewinner for Physics, who had openly proposed that blacks were racially inferior, and that intelligence could be measured by the percentage of one’s Caucasian blood. So repugnant was the notion to many Yale professors and students that they effectively stopped Shockley from speaking, in a fracas that resulted in some suspensions. (And here I have to thank Fareed Zakaria for bringing this to my attention in a recent CNN program.)

A committee was later set up to investigate and assess the incident, and the report of that committee is instructive in what it concluded: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

The committee quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer,1928, that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

That’s a sobering reminder for anyone who professes to uphold academic freedom and human rights: knowledge moves forward not by silencing the other side, but by presenting superior arguments—not always the easiest thing to do, especially without screaming your head off.

Penman No. 314: Sourcing the Pinoy Crowd

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Penman for Monday, August 6, 2018

 

ART CRITICS often like to write about the Pinoy penchant to fill up vacant spaces—our horror vacui, evident in everything from our front yards to our jeepneys and desktops. And when there’s nothing to fill up a nice big void like an empty hall or open street with, heck, we fill them up with our own bodies, to form a healthy crowd.

We Pinoys usually don’t think too much about being caught in a crush at the LRT, the ballgame, or the rally. Indeed, students of crowd psychology will point out that while they may be uncomfortable, crowds can also generate positive synergies, and that even in the most seemingly unruly mob, an inner logic eventually emerges and prevails.

But we also know that crowds can turn ugly and deadly pretty quickly, as the stampedes that every and then convulse English football show. Even much less than that, there’s nothing funny about people fainting in a queue or in a surging mass of bodies desperate for one thing, whether it’s a glance from a rock star or a little slip of paper that could be a ticket to a first-rate college education.

All this was on my mind last Monday as I dealt with one of my busiest days as a school administrator at the University of the Philippines, where an estimated 40,000 people converged at the Office of Admissions in Diliman in one day to submit their applications to take the UPCAT, UP’s entrance exam, in mid-September. To wrap your head around that figure, Diliman has 25,000 students on a normal day. But my guess is that at least half of those 40,000 were anxious parents taking a day off from work to accompany their kids.

It was actually the extended deadline for students of private high schools in Metro Manila (not public as erroneously reported—a lot of fake or unverified news went out that day and after, and a woman presenting herself as a network news reporter even urged the crowd to chant for an extension as her camera rolled). As a torrent of tweets soon reported, the lines kept growing longer, tempers flared, and panic seized more than a few people in the area. The media calls came soon after, and—as UP’s equivalent of, uhm, Harry Roque—I spent the rest of the day and part of the evening fielding questions.

Did we expect the size of the crowd? Well, yes and no. The surge in applications was unprecedented—in years past, we’d get something like 80,000 applications; last year it was 103,000, and this year, our estimate runs to about 167,000. What accounted for the sudden bulge? Free tuition, for one, and K-12, for another. (The actual number of qualified exam takers could be about 20 percent less, and the admission rate—those who “pass,” although there’s no fixed passing grade—about 17 percent of all takers, which is a function of UP’s carrying capacity.)

We did see that coming, but I guess what we didn’t anticipate was how many students (and/or parents) would choose to appear and line up in person, rather than avail themselves of other less stressful options clearly stated on the application webpage—to submit applications online, or by mail or courier, or in bulk with the help of their school. (UP provided the extra option of a drop box when it saw how large the crowd was.) That was probably because queuing up guaranteed—if all your papers were in order—a test permit at the end of the line. But that also meant that the line could take all day.

So we Pinoys are seguristas, willing to sacrifice comfort for the certitude of paper in hand. We still mistrust electronic processing, and can’t wait a couple of weeks to know our fate. I went onsite to see for myself what was going on, and was told by one exasperated guard that “They won’t listen! There’s a drop box right there, and we’ve told them they can courier the forms, but they’d rather line up for hours!”

You’d also have to wonder why Pinoys like to wait for deadlines to do the inevitable; July 30 was already an extension from July 27, and applications had been open for three weeks. But to be fair to the students and their parents, it wasn’t entirely their fault to have waited so late in the day to submit their papers. Some told me that their high schools had held their papers up; some were charging rather stiff fees for handling UPCAT forms.

And was there a class factor at play? When the turn of the public high school applicants came, the huge crowds dwindled, and the lines got shorter—and far fewer parents appeared, because they probably couldn’t afford a day off, or trusted their children to fend for themselves. Things moved more smoothly.

There are lessons for everyone to be learned here—by the students, by the parents, and by us, most of all—and we’ll continue seeking ways to ease procedures for everyone in the years ahead. Eventually, I foresee a time when all submissions will be made online, like visa applications—something we can’t enforce until every Filipino has access to the Internet, and overcomes his or her mistrust of information technology. Until then, we’ll all have to learn better crowd management, provide lots of water and Portalets, exercise patience, take the media brickbats, and soldier on.

Maybe this was a crowd that didn’t really need to be there, but on the other hand, and to put it positively, it was a stark visual reminder of the intensity of our people’s aspirations for a good college education. The best way to disperse it long-term would be to meet those needs, in UP and beyond.

Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 309: A Breakthrough in Tacloban

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Penman for Monday, July 2, 2018

 

 

LATE JUNE is graduation season under the new academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, and since the UP System is made up of eight constituent universities spread out over 17 campuses, that’s a lot of graduations to attend for officials like me. Since the President can’t possibly be at all the ceremonies—which are sometimes scheduled on the same day, or just a day apart—we VPs decide early on where we want to go to represent the System administration.

Diliman is a given, being basically home. I also attend the rites of UP Manila, partly because I’m fascinated by the number and variety of degrees we hand out under the health sciences (culminating this year in the combined MD/PhD—a physician who’s also a researcher, the very top of the heap). But also, UP Manila—harking back to an earlier tradition—still requires its graduates to wear togas instead of the now-ubiquitous sablay or sash, which means I get to drag my US-university toga, or what I call my clown costume, out of the mothballs.

Last year I chose to go to UP Baguio, only to realize, the night before the ceremony, that not only was I on the roster of visitors, but was also the commencement speaker—a little detail that no one had remembered to tell me. A faster commencement speech was never written. (I’ll admit it—I was thrilled to get the job done.)

This June, I selected UP Tacloban—not yet a constituent university but a college under the supervision of UP Visayas. I picked Tacloban because I hadn’t been there for at least 15 years since the early 2000s, and I wanted to see how the campus and the city had recovered from Yolanda’s devastation. I imagined that It was still scarred by the catastrophe five years after; instead, as soon as we landed, I was impressed by how quickly the place had gotten back on its feet, abuzz with tricycles and new construction.

With a morning to spare, I walked about town with Beng (who had come along at her own expense to see old friends) and toured the still-sequestered Sto. Niño Shrine (always more a shrine to the Marcoses), badly ravaged by the storm and by neglect. An even sorrier sight was the adjacent People’s Center and Public Library, which had been converted to a Japanese surplus store. I don’t bemoan the humbling of excess, but as Beng reminded me, “This was the people’s money.”

One happy discovery I did not expect was Tacloban as a food paradise. Wherever we went and at whatever price point—the surf and turf combo and the grilled marlin at the hotel, the fish tinola, the grilled scallops, and bulalo at the Acacia restaurant, more tinola and nilagang carabeef at the unli-rice Pinutos at the mall, and the lemongrass roasted chicken at the now-iconic Ayo restaurant—the food was fresh and flavorful, the beef amazingly tender and the tinola divinely laced with lemongrass and ginger.

All that fortified us for the graduation, which was fairly small as UP graduations go, with just about 200 graduates, two of them finishing magna cum laude, from such fields as Accountancy, Management, Communication Arts, Biology, Computer Science, and Political Science. Tacloban Dean Dr. Dodong Sabalo, a management expert, introduced me to the commencement speaker, Ms. Debbie D. Namalata, San Miguel Brewery’s National Sales Manager and Vice President for Sales, and a UPV alumna, who gave a stirring talk about how her family overcame poverty to achieve professional success against all odds. It was a theme echoed by the valedictorian, Kim Decolongon Limosnero, whose mother had sold chicharon to put him and his siblings through school.

You’d think that I would get bored going to these graduations and witnessing the endless parade of young people coming up the stage in their Sunday best with their parents in tow, but I honestly never do, especially when I listen to such stories as Debbie’s and Kim’s, and see fathers wearing denims and sneakers not because they want to look hip but because it’s the best outfit they can afford. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kim addressed his widowed mother—who had never finished college—as “my summa cum laude,” and I recalled my own parents who had similarly labored mightily to send all five of us to school.

And as I sat onstage, I received the saddest message on my phone, about another UP student named Jemima Faye Dangase, who was supposed to graduate cum laude in Agribusiness Economics from UP Mindanao. The daughter of very poor parents—her diabetic father was a municipal utility worker and her mother was unemployed—Jemima was clearly her family’s hope. She submitted all her requirements for graduation, went home, then crumbled in pain—pain she had borne quietly for months without complaint, apparently so as not to trouble her already beleaguered parents. She was brought to the hospital, where doctors discovered her organs ravished by cancer; and there she died.

I know it borders on melodrama, but this is, truly, the story of Philippine education and why it’s so crucial to social transformation. For every Jemima who stumbles on the very last steps, there must be a Kim who breaks through. This is why going to such places as Tacloban revives my faith in the Filipino future, despite the dark travails of the present, in this moral equivalent of a Yolanda, which—reposing our faith in a God wiser than all despots—we will survive.

Penman No. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

THESE PAST few weeks and months have been fraught with loss and sadness, given the passing of many friends and personages in the arts community—National Artist Billy Abueva, National Artist Cirilo Bautista, architect and heritage advocate Toti Villalon, writer Jing Hidalgo’s daughter Lara, and, most recently, poet and inimitable punster Ed Maranan.

It’s in times like these that we seek refuge and relief in what amounts, for many if not most of us, to another realm of life, if not life itself—the world of art. Being inherently transcendent, art has a way of lifting us up and moving us away from often sordid and prosaic reality, reminding us that as ugly as the world can get (often the very subject of art), beauty exists and endures, like love, in the most unlikely places.

And sometimes beauty can be so sublime that it will not only take your breath away but cause you to smile, and even break out in wild laughter. I remember one such moment of sheer exhilaration from about eight years ago when I stepped out of the train in Sta. Lucia station for my first sight of Venice on a bright summer afternoon, and everything was as it would have been in a painting by Turner or Canaletti—not just the canals, gondolas, and cupolas, but the people and the pigeons, the thrum of the vaporettos and the bells of the bicycles darting past me. At that instant, all I could do was laugh, my joy tempered only by the fact that I didn’t bring Beng with me (four years later, on our fortieth anniversary, I made good on a promise and did just that).

Two events in this first quarter of the year provoked a similar response in me.

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The first was a free, open-air concert given last March 23 at the Amphitheater in UP Diliman by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Dr. Herminigildo G. Ranera. The idea was hatched between Cultural Center of the Philippines President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso and UP President Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion. Nick’s a seasoned actor and director and longtime cultural advocate who took charge of the CCP last year with the view of bringing that venerable institution closer to the masses. Danicon, who had also just marked his first year in office, wanted something fresh and inspiring to happen on campus to buoy people’s spirits up and spur cultural appreciation in the community. Backstopping both was former UP Diliman College of Music dean and tenor Ramon “Montet” Acoymo, who helped put a program together for the PPO in UP.

The brief was simple, but surely a nightmare to execute: bring the PPO’s 58 members to the backside of Quezon Hall facing the amphitheater, where graduations are usually held, fill up that sprawling space with people, and have the PPO perform a program of light classics that everyone could relate and hum along to. Oh—and find sponsors to foot the bill, to do away with tickets and invite even slipper-shod retirees and children to enjoy the music on the grass, under the stars.

And that’s exactly what happened. Like magic—with pieces ranging from the William Tell Overture and Les Miserables to Star Wars and Despacito—the PPO serenaded the spillover crowd and proved, once again—despite the turmoil and clamor of politics—that music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, as the poet said. Thank you, Nick, Danicon, and the PPO for the rare treat—and folks, await a Yuletide reprise, which is being planned out as I write.

My second moment of wonderment came when Beng and I stepped last week into the new (and still ongoing) exhibit of painter Fernando “Mode” Modesto at the downstairs gallery of the Globe Tower in BGC, care of the Hiraya Gallery. Titled “Bliss from Bygone Days,” the exhibit celebrates “euphoria, delight, and rapture,” but I didn’t need to read the liner notes to know that. I felt it the minute I paused in front of a painting like “Khartoum”—a lemony depiction of two angels playing with a ball, and my favorite of the lot alongside “Bali,” a blue sky streaked with orange and yellow. They’re paintings you could stare at, smiling, for hours.

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I’d known Mode since the mid-1970s when I hung out at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio in Ermita, and he was an enfant terrible shocking matrons with his paintings of airborne phalluses. He still shocks today—but with an exuberant wit, a brazen intent to make the viewer smile and be happy despite the tribulations of life in the age of tokhang. Even when he uses black, Mode’s subversive humor pops up, insect-like.

I often ask my writing students, “Where’s the humor in our fiction? Why is every damn story I get a self-obsessed and anguished one of defeat and despair? Sure, life sucks—but I already know that. Can’t you bring me somewhere we haven’t been—like a happiness I can believe in?”

That’s where I thought I was when I stepped into Mode’s works; too bad I had to step back out into the world again.

Penman No. 301: Mysteries of Art (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 7, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring a trio of unsigned paintings I’m attributing to Serafin Serna (1919-1979), drawing on stylistic, thematic, and circumstantial evidence. This week, I’ll walk you on the trail of an art mystery that’s puzzled generations of viewers and scholars at the University of the Philippines.

For many decades now, a huge painting has been parked somewhere in UP Diliman—first at the College of Law, from where it was moved to the College of Fine Arts. Although terribly deteriorated, the painting depicts a man—clearly Jose Rizal—being accosted under the trees by at least six other men dressed in two kinds of uniforms—two priests, four soldiers—with more onlookers in the background. Rizal’s arms seem to be held behind his back, so he must be on his way to his execution; his sad, pensive demeanor certainly suggests so.

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It seems to be an important painting—as any work with Rizal would tend to be, especially given its life-size dimensions (184 x 106 inches)—but the big question is, who painted it? It’s dated by the artist to “Manila, 1901,” but the signature above that has been blurred by age and grime. In the university’s inventory, it’s ascribed to an “A. Gomez,” the name whose letters appeared to emerge from the haze. Because nobody knows an “A. Gomez” who’s ever figured in our art history, the painting was considered second-rate and left quietly to decay.

Enter UP President Danny “Danicon” Concepcion, who as Law dean had seen the painting many times and had wondered, like everyone else, about its origins. Even without establishing who the painter was, now that he was president, he wanted the painting restored, given that it’s been with UP for so long and features a national hero.

For advice on the restoration, Danicon turned to my wife Beng, who’s worked on scores of master paintings over the past 20 years, from pieces by Juan Luna to Anita Magsaysay-Ho. (Just to be clear about this, Beng and I have agreed that she’s not going to do more for or with UP than give advice, pro bono, while I’m serving as Vice President for Public Affairs, to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. If no one else can or will do the job, then she’ll take it on for the most minimal fee she can quote, subject to all the applicable rules.) At the president’s request, Beng got together with noted artist Neil Doloricon, an old friend and former dean of the CFA, to sort out the situation.

They faced the same inescapable question: who painted Rizal & Co., and who was “A. Gomez”? As it happens, I think I’ve found the answer, or at least my theory of it.

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Using high-resolution photographs Beng took of the painting, I digitally enhanced the signature and rendered it in monochrome to sharpen the contrast between the letters and the background. Indeed there’s what looks like an MEZ at the end with a long tail, and ahead of them, what seems to be an A. But I wasn’t seeing a G or an O to make GOMEZ. The more I stared at it, the more I saw “MARTINEZ” shaping up.

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Some Googling revealed that a painter named Felix Martinez (1859-1907) was “a painter and muralist who created religious, genre, landscape and still-life paintings. He was a contemporary of Simon Flores, Lorenzo Guerrero, Paz Paterno and her half-sister Adelaida Paterno…. (He) also painted the interior of the San Sebastian church in Quiapo.” The ASEMUS website notes that “Felix Martinez y Lorenzo was a member of a family of sculptors and artisans. He was also an illustrator and an art professor. As an illustrator, he participated in… La Ilustración Filipina(1894-96) depicting daily life scenes. He also helped Regino García (1840-1916), another known Filipino naturalist art painter, illustrate La Flora de Filipinas(The Flora of the Philippines 1878), a creation of Fray Manuel Blanco.”

Examples of his paintings—particularly the one of “Gov. Blanco and His Troops” (1895), now at the National Museum—showed that again, in style and substance (and even in coloration), the Rizal mural could well have been his.

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Do the signatures match? From those I’ve recovered—particularly a sharp one from a portrait of Pepita Bertoll in La Moda Filipina(with thanks to Pinoy Kollektor)—there’s a striking resemblance. I could be imagining things, but I can seem to discern the elevated M and T. Of course it will take more than my 64-year-old eyes and my enthusiasm to prove the case—further cleaning of the signature and better digital enhancement will surely yield clearer results—but an argument for Felix Martinez seems to be shaping up. But whether it’s by Martinez or not, this painting of Rizal by one of his contemporaries deserves to be saved.

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Signature copy

(With many thanks to pinoykollektor.com for permission to repost the images.)

Penman No. 291: A Big Boost for Translation

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Penman for Monday, February 19, 2018

 

 

THIS YEAR marks the 40thanniversary of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing, which was established by the UP Board of Regents in 1978 as the Creative Writing Center. I had just returned to UP as an English major after dropping out for ten years when I was taken in by the CWC in the early 1980s as its fellow for drama (I was better known then as a playwright and screenwriter in Filipino than as a fictionist in English).

For a young writer on the verge of his first book, there was nothing more exhilarating than sitting at the feet of the masters—Franz Arcellana, Alex Hufana, and Amel Bonifacio, among many others; Nick Joaquin and Ben Santos came by now and then for the writers’ workshops, and I grabbed the opportunity to have my books signed and to pick their brains, or merely to breathe the same air, thinking that I could imbibe a whiff of their magic.

Since then, the ICW (as it was renamed in 2002) has been at the forefront of developing Philippine literary culture. Its fellows, associates, and advisers number among the most well-regarded writers in the country, including four National Artists for Literature—Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez, Virgilio Almario, and Bienvenido Lumbera. Most of the best writers from all over the country today—be it in Filipino, English, and the regional languages—have at one time or another passed through the doors of the ICW, through the UP National Writers Workshop that UP has held every summer since 1965, even before the CWC/ICW was born. I daresay that there’s no other program that UP has run for as long, without fail, for over half of its nearly 110 years of existence, and that has been as influential in the shaping of the Filipino creative mind.

I was privileged to lead the ICW as its director for three terms, and building on the work of my predecessors (who included, aside from the aforementioned stalwarts, Jimmy Abad, Roger Sikat, Virgilio Almario, Jing Hidalgo, and Vim Nadera, and after me Roland Tolentino), the UPICW expanded its reach over that period. We upgraded the writers’ workshop to cater to mid-career writers, opened a portal to Philippine literature at panitikan.com.ph, published the country’s premier literary journal Likhaan, gave out the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, conducted the Panayam lecture series, and chronicled the lives and thoughts of our best writers under the Akdang Buhay series. We celebrate the literary year every December with a big program at Writers’ Night.

That’s more than any university in the Philippines—indeed in Asia—has done for creative writing, establishing the UPICW as the regional leader in its field. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve undertaken even more new projects these past two years, supported by UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research (EIDR) program.

For example, we’ve conducted Interdisciplinary Book Forums devoted to topics as diverse as tattooing, speculative fiction, and colonial medicine. We’ve also expanded our outreach beyond the mid-career workshop to include the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Workshop for beginning writers, the Bienvenido Lumbera Translators’ Seminar, and the Gemino Abad Teaching Seminar. These last two seminars are aimed at teachers of literature and creative writing, meant to equip them with better skills and insights in handling their courses.

Last February 8-10, we held the first Saling-Panitik: Palihang Bienvenido Lumbera at the UP Hotel under the directorship of ICW Fellow Joey Baquiran. Fifty participants from Bicol, Pangasinan, the Ilocos region, and Metro Manila listened to lectures by respected translation practitioners Bienvenido Lumbera, Marne Kilates, and Mike Coroza.

In their addresses, Bien Lumbera emphasized that literature and its translation in several Philippine languages is at the heart of creating the nation; Marne Kilates extolled St. Jerome as the patron saint of translation; and Mike Coroza argued that a foreign text is dead until its translation comes along for a new audience.

The participants appreciated the hands-on approach of the seminar—facilitated by Pangasinense scholar Marot Flores, Bicol writer Niles Jordan Breis, Iloco expert Junley Lazaga, and Filipino dramaturg Vlad Gonzales—whereby they were assigned texts in their respective languages, English, and Filipino, which they then translated into several versions. For example, the Ilocano group rendered Edith Tiempo’s much-loved poem “Bonsai” into Iloco. The exercises aimed to improve the participants’ translation skills which they can employ in the K-12 literature subjects which they teach in senior high school.

We’re still a long way from developing the corps of literary translators that we’re going to need if we want Philippine literature (other than English) to break into the global stage. But seminars like this are a big step forward, at least in terms of drawing attention to the importance of translation not just in literature but in society and nation-building itself.

And we have the UPICW to thank for it, as well as everyone who’s contributed to keeping it up and running for 40 years.

Penman No. 288: From Quiapo to Norwich

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Penman for Monday, January 29, 2018

 

IT’S A strange title, I know, but it’s all I could come up with to highlight the two topics I’m taking up this week. They’re not actually connected—at least not yet—but they were much on my mind as I dusted off my texts for a new semester of teaching at UP (all for naught, as it turned out, as my graduate writing class was dissolved for lack of students—to my secret relief).

“Quiapo” is at the core of Quiapography, a digital-humanities project designed and led last semester by Dr. Patricia May Jurilla. Normally our resident expert on the history of books and publishing—one of those rare nerds who shares my strange attraction to Gothic blackletter and to the aroma of centuries-old paper—May branched out not only into a new subject but also a new approach to teaching and learning under the rubric of “digital humanities.”

Or maybe not that new. I asked Dr. Jurilla to explain the concept to me, and I was told that “Digital humanities has been in practice for over twenty years now. It’s emerged as a discipline itself with its own league of practitioners, dedicated book series and journals, circuit of conferences and events, degree programs, and new job opportunities in the tight academic market.”

Better than any explanation is the product itself of her PhD students’ semester, during which May directed them in a digital exploration and presentation of that most quintessentially Pinoy of urban spaces, Quiapo. That can be seen on the Quiapographywebsite at https://updigitalhumanities.wixsite.com/quiapography, “a virtual museum designed to document and map the culture of Quiapo in order to celebrate, re-view, and rediscover its heritage and its importance in Philippine history and society.”

Aside from the familiar photographs of and stories about Quiapo Church, amulet vendors, and the Black Nazarene, the site contains useful resources such as a list of literary works about Quiapo, pieces on the district’s fortune tellers, camera shops, and historical heritage, and photo galleries of just about everything.

Myself, I wish that I’d known about the project earlier, as I would’ve had my own Quiapo stories to contribute, as central as the place was to my young life—from my memories of descending for the first time into its brand-new underpass (something straight out of a sci-fi fantasy to a ten-year-old) to marching at Plaza Miranda with fist raised as a teenage Maoist and buying Christmas ham on Echague as a family man.

For those who’ve never strayed into this crucible of Filipino-ness (and sadly, in today’s mall-oriented culture, that would be millions of Pinoy millennials), Quiapographyshould provide a perfect introduction.

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And now a quick cut to Norwich, some 10,600 kilometers away from Quiapo in southeastern England. For nine months between 1999 and 2000, this city became home for me and Beng when I took up residency there as the David T. K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia. It was a restful but also fruitful stay that led to what became my second novel, Soledad’s Sister.

To put it simply, UEA is the most vibrant center of creative writing in the UK. Its community of writers was founded by Sir Angus Wilson and Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970, and its graduates have included the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Rose Tremain. (Among the privileges of being there was having books signed by future Nobel prizewinners J. M. Coetzee and Ishiguro.)

Every year, UEA invites a writer to stay and write there—no teaching, no research, no lectures, just writing and relaxation—at its expense, or rather that of a sponsor named David T. K. Wong. A former journalist, civil servant, and businessman from Hong Kong who also writes fiction, Mr. Wong did well enough in life to endow the generous fellowship, an award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about Asia.

I was the second Wong Fellow, and over the 20 years since the fellowship’s inception in 1998, two other Filipinos have followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy in 2003, and the current fellow, the Davao-born but US-based Nathan Go.

This brings me to my pitch: if you think you have a great novel or collection of stories welling in you—and you’d like to finish it in England, looking out on a lagoon full of graceful swans—please apply for the next Wong Fellowship, like I dared to do two decades ago. All you basically need, aside from the forms and the £10 application fee, is a 2,500-word excerpt from your proposed fiction project. The deadline for applications is February 28. For forms and more information, go here:https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship. Good luck!

Penman No. 282: Never Enough Patriots

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Penman for Monday, December 18, 2017

 

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

Leonard Casper and Joseph Galdon aver that Manuel Arguilla’s best stories are those in the pastoral tradition, and I would agree that “Midsummer” is in a class all its own, but who knows what else he would have written, given ten or twenty more years? Stories like “Elias” convey less surface beauty than his pastorals, but in some ways are more resonant; his last story, “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge,” is something of a psychological thriller.

This brings to me my main point, which is to propose that to celebrate Arguilla is to recognize and embrace his complexity and even his seeming contradictions. In a sense, he prefigured the situation of many Filipino writers today who find themselves caught between burning local issues and the seductions of the global. The Third World is the new Nagrebcan, and what lies beyond it the new metropolis.

One thing we have to note of Arguilla’s work is that he wrote in English—indeed, a very refined and educated English—which tells us that while he wrote tirelessly and affectionately about the farmers of Nagrebcan, he wasn’t writing to be read by them. That’s not an accusation—only an observation of the fact that Arguilla was very much a member of his literary milieu, a milieu inflamed by proletarian ideals but one that still conducted its passionate debates in English.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Milwaukee, I found a copy in an old bookshop of the March 1936 issue of Story Magazine, America’s pre-eminent fiction publication then, featuring Sinai Hamada’s classic love story, “Tanabata’s Wife.” (I later gave that copy to the Hamadas in Baguio.) The author’s notes mentioned that Hamada had been preceded just the month before by another Filipino writer named Manuel Arguilla and a story titled “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife.” Since then I tried to locate that issue, and more than 25 years later, I received it, as a gift from a friend who knew I had been looking for it. The note on the author doesn’t say much, only that “His biography has yet to reach us.” I also just recently acquired, on eBay, a copy of The Prairie Schooner from the Fall of 1935, where can be found a story titled “Midsummer” by Manuel Arguilla. This same journal would also later publish his story “Heat.”

All of these stories—including that of Hamada, who was younger than Arguilla by a year—had already been published in the Philippines. But they still sent them for publication in the US, because it was apparently important for them to do so in their time, just like we seek to be internationally published today not just to find more readers, but to be validated in the global society of letters.

They were young men in their early 20s, brimming with talent and ambition. All they wanted was to write, to be published, and to be read, just like all of you here today. And like many of you, they were outspoken about their beliefs, eccentric and maybe even offensive in certain ways, but totally dedicated to their craft. We lionize them today for good reason, but in truth, as persons and as writers, they were far from perfect, which also means that we can be like them.

Even after his martyr’s death, critical views of Arguilla’s work and legacy have varied widely. Indeed, among his peers, there seems to be a qualified dissatisfaction with his fiction that some of us today would find strange, if not unkind.

As I was preparing for this talk, I was elated to find, in my stash of old literary journals, a copy of the 1952 Literary Apprentice, where five writers—Lyd Arguilla, Ligaya Victorio Fruto, Francisco Arcellana, Edilberto Tiempo, and Alejandrino Hufana—shared their reminiscences of Manuel Arguilla in short personal essays. Lyd sweetly remembers the man and the husband—his bellowing laughter, his flair for fashion, his love of swimming, dancing, jazz, and poker (at least we share something), of Shakespeare, and above all of writing. Ligaya savors the “champaca-laden atmosphere” of the porch at the Arguillas’ house on M.H. del Pilar and the carefree banter of Manila’s prewar literary set, the names and initials of the notables—AEL, AVH, Estrella, Daisy and Bert, SP and Mary, and someone simply referred to by his surname Villa—dropping like cookies along some magical pathway. It all vanishes, of course, in the devastating war that sweeps in from just around the corner—the house, the company, the laughter, the floral fragrance.

Five years Manuel’s junior, Franz recalls Arguilla writing him a letter, urging him to “be true to your real self,” and gifting him with a book with that now famous inscription, “To Francisco Arcellana, May he put more life into his art and less art into his life.” Remarkably, Franz’s memoir ends with a candid admission that “the only thing that pleased me about him was his writing—when he wrote short stories. I didn’t like being lectured to, not even by him…. I shall never be able to forgive him his patriotism. He was no patriot…. He was a writer of short stories. He should have left patriotism alone…. We have many patriots. We don’t have too many writers.”

Ed Tiempo recognizes that “the outstanding gift of Arguilla is his sense of people, his characters,” but adds quickly that “people alone do not make successful fiction.” Ever the traditionalist, Tiempo looks for clearer meaning and coherence in Arguilla’s fiction, but grants that “because we accept the authenticity of the small details, there is something coercive even in (his) unconvincing characters.” Alex Hufana, another son of La Union, does a close reading of “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife” and pronounces it authentic, praising the author for keeping “his hand cool even as they hold hot soil—decorum required of him as an artist.”

Whatever your own estimation of Arguilla may be, you will probably agree with me that at his best, he delivered what I tell my students should be the hallmark of a great story: it should not only be well written, but it should be moving, and it should be memorable.

What Arguilla teaches the young writer is that technical excellence alone is not enough. Too many writers exhibit little more than cleverness and linguistic virtuosity, with hardly any emotional impact or lasting effect. He also reminds us what a vast country we have, much larger, richer, and more complex than Starbucks, Facebook, and the Marvel and DC universe, and that a “real” writer, to use one of his favorite words, is one immersed enough in his or her society to recognize both beauty and brutality in the same place.

Franz Arcellana bemoans Arguilla’s loss to patriotism, but that too tells us something we often forget: that there are things more important than writing or literature, and country is one of them. In a war that tore through and across classes and across beliefs, Arguilla died for his country—not for literature, not for socialism, not for his class; well, maybe for Lydia, which makes him even more of a hero to me. With all due respect to my old teacher Franz, we have writers aplenty; of patriots, especially these days, we can never have enough.

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(Photo of Manuel Arguilla’s ancestral home along the National Highway in Bauang, La Union.)