Penman No. 248: Ring in the Old

IMG_1088

Penman for Monday, April 24, 2017

 

 

IN A GENERATION preoccupied with newness, it’s a refreshing surprise to find young people engrossed with things far older than themselves, and that’s exactly what Beng and I stumbled upon a few Saturdays ago when we entered Warehouse Eight on Chino Roces Ave. in Makati. There was absolutely no hint of it from the outside, but going up a flight of stairs, we stepped into a large room filled to the brim with antiques—typewriters, watches, cameras, bicycles, turntables, vinyl records, books, eyeglasses, and, yes, pens!

This was the Istorya Vintage Appreciation Fair, an event organized by entrepreneur and collector Lennie Dionisio (whom I’d never met before, so had the temerity to ask “What’s your day job?”). I’d come to show some of my vintage pens, of course, but I made a beeline for a tableful of Lennie’s fabulous vintage typewriter collection—a passion she shares with another friend of mine, George Mamonluk. I proudly showed off a picture of my 1922 Corona 3 which I’d found in San Francisco and hand-carried home—if you get a high from inhaling typewriter lubricant, you’d be my kind of person. But the piece de resistance of Lennie’s spread wasn’t even a typewriter but a lovely Adana letterpress machine of the kind that I’d been dreaming of, for hand-printing pages of poetry on paper you could run your fingers over and feel every word.

IMG_1105

It was that kind of vanished romance that tingled in my bones as I looked over the exhibits (most items in which were for sale), elated by the discovery that they had been brought over not by doddering seniors like me but by a new crop of millennials who actually knew how to use a Rolleiflex TLR or a Sheaffer Snorkel. Quite a few even came over to the booth we operated for the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, asking to see how flexible nibs and lever fillers worked. There’s hope for this generation yet!

For about a decade, Beng and I used to indulge our mania for the old stuff on our October sorties to New York and its fabulous flea markets and thrift shops (that’s right, I’d save up the thousands for the plane fare so we could poke around looking for $5 bargains in dusty piles of bric-a-brac). Those fun times may be over as our knees themselves turn vintage and as our budgets dry up, but with local shows like Istorya popping up, who needs Manhattan? I can’t wait to see the next edition of Istorya and to step back into the land of the lost.

IMG_1092

THERE’S ANOTHER way of bringing the past into the present, and that’s by remanufacturing old classics into new and modernized versions that exude vintage charm but perform with almost digital precision.

I was reminded of this last month when our friend Celia, who shared our footloose ways with her late husband Rene, introduced me to a very interesting pair of locally-made grandfather clocks. I have a small trove of vintage wristwatches, mostly from the 1950s, that I manually wind up every few months or so—and I have to admit to a clock fetish in that I’ll likely have at least two clocks in one room so I can see the time wherever I look—but I have yet to acquire my first grandfather clock.

I’ve seen quite a few of these in homes and museums abroad, and what’s fascinating about them is their imposing size and that deep, sonorous chime they produce to announce the hours.

Apparently, according to Celia, there’s a company out here somewhere that makes several models of grandfather clocks, following the tradition of furniture artisan Simplicio Adriano, a Pampanga native who started his craft in 1911. The company is called SAFM, and it’s now managed by Simplicio’s great-grandsons Alfred and Francis.

I’ve yet to visit the factory, but Celia tells me that a seven-foot model they call the RAGA 70 has a chain-driven, Westminster chime movement that strikes every quarter and every hour. The movement is made by Hermle of Germany, considered the leading clock and clock movement manufacturer in the world. The cabinet is made of Philippine hardwood and comes in mahogany, dark walnut or light walnut finishes.

RAGA70_2

If tall clocks and loud chimes float your boat, text or call the manufacturer at 0905-2765288 or email adriano.grandfather.clocks@gmail.com.

 

A FEW years ago, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the Iligan National Writers Workshop at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) in Iligan City, and I’m happy to see that despite all the odds it’s had to face, the workshop is moving along just fine and will be holding its 24th session from May 29 to June 2 under the stewardship of stalwarts Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez. Co-sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), Iligan is an important hub in the national network of workshops designed to encourage new young writers in all languages and genres.

Eighteen writing fellows from all over the country have been selected for Iligan. From Luzon come: Poetry (English) Bernard Kean Mappala Capinpin; (Filipino) Joey Alcones Tabula and Vanessa Anne Joice Tanada Haro; Fiction (Filipino) Lenin Carlos Macaraig Mirasol; and Drama (English/Filipino): Fatrick Romo Tabada;

From the Visayas: Creative Non-Fiction (English) Eric Gerard de la Cruz Ruiz; Poetry (English) Andrea de Guzman Lim and Gay Josephine Valles;  (Sebuano) Hannah Marie Ramirez Aranas; and Fiction (English): Nino Augustine Masa Loyola; and

From Mindanao: Poetry (Filipino): Delfin Hingco Mundala; Loi Vincent Caparos Dériada; (Sebuano) Mildred Eran Garcia; Creative Non-fiction(English): Silvana Erika Nasser Navaja; and Drama (English/Filipino) Kwesi Ian Jay Miguel Junsan.

This year’s Boy Abunda Writing Fellow is Waray poet Reynel Mahilum Ignacio; the Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow is Sebuano poet Kim Ashley B. Escalona; and the Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow is Maranao poet Alican Mendez Pandapatan.

I haven’t read these young writers’ works, but the mere idea of, for example, someone continuing to write Maranao poetry in this global century is heartwarming. That probably won’t happen in Diliman, which is another good reason why a homegrown workshop in Mindanao is absolutely necessary for the enrichment and preservation of our national culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 208: Back to the Basics

IMG_8510.JPG

Penman for Monday, July 18, 2016

 

 

I’M VERY happy to report that on this my last three-year term as director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), a number of key improvements in our programs will be taking place very soon that should bring creative writing closer to both its producers and its audiences. Much of this is made possible by support from UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Program (EIDR), a visionary fund initiated by UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and implemented by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs headed by Dr. Gisela P. Concepcion.

Most significantly, we will be expanding our workshops to include an annual Basic Writers Workshop aimed at developing new and younger writers, and offering, every other year, a seminar for teachers and another for translators. We will also be holding, every semester, an Interdisciplinary Book Forum to bring together experts from various disciplines in a discussion of vital Philippine issues.

These new projects will supplement our regular flagship activities—the National Writers Workshop, held every summer for mid-career writers; the Likhaan Journal, an annual publication that showcases the best of new Philippine writing; the Akdang Buhay series of video interviews of Philippine literary luminaries; and panitikan.com.ph, the website we maintain as the world’s portal to Philippine literature. The UPICW also oversees the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award and supervises the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room (where our office has been temporarily housed since the Faculty Center burned down last April), and runs the Panayam lecture series featuring our fellows, associates, and advisers.

It’s a lot of work on top of our regular teaching and writing jobs, but it’s what a university-based writing center or institute is meant to do, and the UPICW—established in 1979—is a regional pioneer and leader in this respect, perhaps best known for the UP Writers Workshop that began in 1965 and which has taken place every summer for more than half a century since then. Generations of Filipino writers have gone through this workshop as a rite of passage, and workshops like it have sprung up in other places and universities around the country (the Silliman University workshop in Dumaguete was the first in 1962, and is still going strong).

About ten years ago, the UPICW decided to set itself apart from the other workshops and to perform a unique service to the writing community by focusing our summer workshop on mid-career writers—people with at least one published book or theatrical or film production to their credit—so we could deal with more advanced issues in writing and publishing. It’s been great so far, and we’d like to believe that we’ve helped to sustain the growth of Philippine literature in this time of global challenges and opportunities, but then again we keep remembering how critical the UP workshop’s intervention was in the lives and careers of young writers just starting out, as we all were at one time.

That’s why we agreed to bring back the beginners’ workshop—we’re calling it the Basic Writers Workshop for now, but we’ll think of a better name in the future—to touch base once again with our most promising young authors. And we’re going to do this very soon—over three days, from October 14 to 16, somewhere in the vicinity of the UP campus. Because it’s directed at younger writers—you’d have to be between 18 and 35 years old as of August 15, which is also the deadline for applications.

For our first BBW, we will be looking for works of speculative fiction—a popular genre that can be defined as defined as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” (Next year, we’ll most likely do young adult fiction). Applicants should submit two original, preferably unpublished stories in the genre in English or Filipino, with each story (which could be an excerpt from a novel in progress) running between 3,000 and 10,000 words. . Applications must be accompanied by a short CV providing the applicant’s contact details, education and employment history (if any), and list of published works and awards (if any). The stories and accompanying CVs must be submitted online to uplikhaan@gmail.com. We’ll be taking in six writers in English and six in Filipino, and successful applicants will receive a modest stipend, as well as board and lodging at the workshop venue.

The Workshop Director is Charlson Ong, with award-winning writers Eliza Victoria, Nikki Alfar, Willy Ortiz, and Vladimeir Gonzales serving as panelists and teaching staff. For inquiries, contact 9818500 (2116) and look for Luna Sicat Cleto, Deputy Director of the UP ICW, or email lcleto9@gmail.com.

We’re still planning out the teachers’ and translators’ seminars—tentatively set for January 2017 and 2018—but they’ll involve upgrading the skills of our high-school and college teachers in teaching new K-12 subjects like Creative Nonfiction, as well as developing more and better translators of texts (not necessarily just literary texts) between Filipino and English and possibly other Philippine languages. These seminars will acknowledge the key roles teachers and translators play in bringing new works and new knowledge to larger and younger audiences,

The UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum, which will start in September and be held every semester over the next two years, is another new project we’re all excitedly looking forward to. The forum will be based on a book recently published by the UP Press on a subject of broad interest, alternating between literary and non-literary titles. What will distinguish the forum will be a panel discussion on the book comprising experts from various fields such as anthropology, law, economics, biology, and medicine.

Our EIDR support runs for two years, possibly renewable for another two, so it’s going to be a very busy and interesting interlude in the history of the UPICW, and by the time we turn 40 in 2019—which is also when I retire from full-time teaching—we should have gone that much farther in realizing our mission of nurturing new writing by Filipinos for Filipinos and for the world.

 

 

Penman No. 202: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (2)

IMG_8512.jpg

Penman for Monday, June 6, 2016

 

 

 

AS I noted last Monday, this year’s UP National Writers Workshop—which we held from May 22 to 29 on Mt. Makiling in Laguna—was one of our best in recent years, with a new batch of vibrant literary talents emerging to stake their claim on our attention.

Aside from the three women writers I mentioned last week—Elena Paulma, Mina Esguerra, and Celine Fabie—we had nine other fellows presenting fine, exciting work: new projects in various stages of completion, submitted for review and comment by their peers and seniors for possible improvements in both design and execution. These works were accompanied by a brief presentation of the writers’ “poetics”—their own appreciation of how and why they write what they write. While very few outside the workshop will ever get to read them, those poetics are often gems of creative insight, a rare look into the minds of writers trying to understand their own process of writing.

Poet Vijae Alquisola, for example, grounds his collection titled “Paglasa sa Pansamantala” (which I’ll loosely translate as “Savoring the Temporary”) on painful personal experience (and here again I’ll translate what he wrote, as I will other texts in Filipino): “Temporary was the answer my siblings and I held on to over the long stay overseas of our mother. Even if I didn’t know how many nights of sleep or days of waking temporary meant—and even if it was never clear what stretch of months or days it occupied on the calendar—we had no choice but to accept it. She had to go to Hong Kong to feed us. She had to leave so we could live, just for the time being.”

Novelist RM Topacio Aplaon (Topograpiya ng Lumbay, The Topography of Loneliness): “I feel liberated by the very act of writing because this is the only place where I can be true to myself, the only way I can freely say anything I want, can do anything I may have no right to do in real life, can chronicle moments I wish never to forget: place, feeling, image, sensibility.”

Poet Vincent A. Dioquino (“we never understood proximity”): “Language is that space where the imagined thrives, where the imagined is held closer to the body, saying what the body cannot speak of. It is that consciousness by which feeling and thought are evoked, a mediation from the abstract to the more concrete., or from a plurality of concrete and particular objects (that is to say: texts, or a set of inscriptions aspiring towards the textual). Language is being made immanent and tangible, threatened with decipherment. It is this specific occurrence of language that is rendered visible and visceral in poetry.”

Poet Francisco Arias Montesena (“Iluminado”): “I write poetry as a part of my being, as an attempt at things I cannot achieve in reality. Often I have to find time and space for poetry in the midst of my work as a teacher, but I have to do myself this favor, knowing that I have to share what I have, even if I have much to learn, despite my shortcomings. How can we begin to fill this need if we cannot mine words for love?”

Novelist Rolly Rude Ortega (Rajah Muda): “I write the stories that I want to read, and I want to read more stories about the Moros, specifically the Maguindanaos, and the lumads, specifically the Dulangan Manobos. The Ilonggos of Mindanao, the Maguindanaos, and the Dulangan Manobos are all significant to me because these people had been part of my life even before I decided to become a writer. Growing up in Kulaman Plateau, I saw firsthand that while the Ilonggos and other Christian tribes were poor, the Manobos were poorer still, which should not have been the case, for they had been living in the resource-rich land long before the migrants came.”

Writer for children Cheeno Marlo Sayuno (“Super Boyong Wears a Malong”): “I love writing for children and (writing about) culture. I would like to share with the children the beauty of our cultural heritage. While the advent of modernization is nothing but inevitable and even if cultures change and evolve, I want the children to still see the colorful costumes, dances, and songs from the past, hoping that it would help in developing a sense of nationalism and appreciation for Indigenous communities.”

Poet Melecio F. Turao (“The Antimodel”): “I have a soft spot for the outsider, for things on the periphery, the ignored, the unrecognized. In my silent heroic moments, I tell myself that I champion the cause of second fiddles. I remember that Cirilo Bautista gave up writing poetry in 2000, saying we live in a prosaic world. I tend to agree so far as our predictable lives go. But a poet should be able to see through appearances. So I pushed myself to try to understand what compels me to write. And it hit me that I would have been a good student of psychology or cognitive science because I amplify awkwardness, alienation, resentment, loathing, desire and failure. I trivialize the hypocritically serious and structured. Thus, The Antimodel.”

Playwright Visconde Carlo Vergara (“Hula Hoop”): “Since I work in comics and plays, writing description isn’t my strongest suit, but people have complimented me on how natural my dialogue sounds, or reads. This I credit to being used to listening and mirroring, ever since I was a kid, as well as having that stint as a theatre actor in the nineties. I would write my drafts purely in dialogue, and simply imagine what it would look like when played out. In acting out the play in my mind, I would also do the acting myself by reading the dialogue out loud in the personalities of every character, just to test if the words rolled off the tongue well enough, and if the sentences had good rhythm.”

Poet Enrique S. Villasis (“Manansala”): “A solution I saw (for the collection) was to bring the poems closer to the times when the paintings were executed. As historical artifacts, Manansala’s many-layered lights and colors could be seen as signifiers of the disturbances, dangers, sufferings, dreams, and desires of his age. This collection is my attempt as a poet to explore the relationship between an artwork and its period, as well as an attempt of the poet to assume the mask of a critic, historian, and curator.”

It was a pleasure and a challenge taking up these writers on their given premises and seeing how closely their grasp matched their reach. (And it was no huge problem if they didn’t: in a workshop, everything is negotiable, even one’s original design, although no one is under duress to accept alternative suggestions.)

I’d like to thank my fellow panelists—National Artists Bien Lumbera and Virgilio Almario, and fellow UP professors and faculty members Jimmy Abad, Jing Hidalgo, Neil Garcia, Vim Nadera, Jun Cruz Reyes, Luna Sicat, Eugene Evasco, Issy Reyes, and Vlad Gonzales—our hosts at UP Los Baños, the National Arts Center, and the BP International Hotel, and of course the UP Diliman and UP System administration for another worthwhile effort at enriching the future of Philippine literature.

Penman No. 201: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (1)

_MG_6720.jpg

Penman for Monday, May 30, 2016

 

FOR THE first time in ages, the UP National Writers Workshop—a project sustained without fail by the University of the Philippines since 1965—is being held away from its traditional venue in Baguio, this time on the foothills of Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, where UP has another major campus. The UPNWW has risen to become the premier workshop for mid-career writers in both English and Filipino, and by “mid-career” we mean writers who have published or are in the process of publishing their first book. Typically these are writers in their 30s and 40s who may be employed in jobs having little or nothing to do with creative writing, who may be teaching, or who may be simply stuck in a rut waiting for that push or kick to resume a stalled love affair with letters.

Toward December every year, we—meaning the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which runs the workshop and which I head as director—put out a call for applications for qualified writers to join the week-long workshop. No one gets a free pass—no matter how good you are or how many books you’ve published, you have to go through the application process and submit an excerpt from a work in progress and a short essay on your poetics (in other words, why you write what you write).

I could tell, even from the applications, that this year’s batch was one of the best we’ve put together in recent years. In it are Vijae Orquia Alquisola (poetry, Filipino), Celine Beatriz Fabie (CNF, English), Rolly Jude M. Ortega (novel, English), RM Topacio Aplaon (novel, Filipino), Vincent Abejuela Dioquino (poetry, English), Francisco Montesena (poetry, Filipino), Melecio Turao (poetry, English), Ma. Elena Paulma (CNF, English), Mina V. Esguerra (fiction, English), Cheeno Sayuno (children’s fiction, English), Enrique Villasis (poetry, Filipino), and Visconde Carlo Vergara (drama, Filipino).

We’re midway through the workshop as I write this, and already I’ve been impressed by what I’ve been reading and listening to. In particular, three women we brought into the workshop (sorry, guys, but ladies first) ably demonstrated the range and quality of the work at hand.

Celine Beatriz Fabie is an actress and singer by training, but her biography of her grandmother, the actress Mona Lisa, won for her the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award last year, and her continuing foray into creative nonfiction yielded a poignant recollection of her father’s passing:

“When dad went, a nurse came in and started cleaning his body, a body which hadn’t been moving anymore.  I asked her if I could do it.  I started wiping him and asked the nurse, my mom, and my uncle if he could be left there for a little while, if it’s okay that they didn’t take him away just yet, if I could just be given a moment to be with him a little more.  I crawled in bed with my dad, who clearly wasn’t there any longer.  I took his face in my hands, stayed there for an hour that seemed to me a fraction of second, and told him I loved him.  Just that I loved him.  There were no last promises, no saying goodbyes.  I knew for a fact that there was no time and place in this lifetime that I would find myself ready.  I was back to being his little girl in an instant, forever, and the little girl, I’m afraid, will never be ready to say goodbye.”

Elena Paulma spent a few years as a Cenacle nun before teaching Literature at Xavier University. I was especially proud when a short story she wrote for my class won First Prize at the Palancas in 2011. For the workshop, Elena submitted a meditation on the Sendong disaster that ravaged parts of Mindanao, which she and a friend also from Cagayan de Oro, Jeena Rani Marquez, are writing a book about. Elena recalls:

“And the raindrops just keep coming, now in torrents sweeping across the land, flowing down from mountains laid bare by chainsaws, waves of it now from the raging river washing onto the darkened houses in the subdivisions, in the main thoroughfares, along the highways, and falling riverbanks.

“Later, there will be hundreds of feet lined on the streets, dangling from trucks, hanging from roofs and treetops. Many of the houses will be no more, the whispered words and laughter silenced by the whirlpooling waters that the rains had become.

“Much later, even years later, there are those who will shiver when a single drop of rain hits the tin roof in the night. They will want to get up from their beds, gather the things   that survived the demon floods that devoured houses, cars, friends, dogs, and families, and run far away from the mere sound of rain.

“It will take a long time, a very long time, before the darkness that gathers in every household each time it rains will be cleansed away.”

Mina V. Esguerra comes from a background in Communications, which she has deftly employed to become a pioneer in digital publishing, selling thousands of copies of her romance novels online. She firmly believes that Filipino authors can break through to the global market, and that romance novels offer a viable way forward. Not surprisingly, her novels carry an upscale, millennial vibe. In her workshop piece, two characters find themselves trapped in an elevator:

“We both backed away from the speaker and… had nowhere else to go. It was hard to not look at each other, though, because all four walls of the elevator were reflective surfaces. If I looked one way, I would see his eyes, the nice shape of his lips. The sweep of his hair up and to the left, revealing a worried forehead. The other wall reflected an image of his broad back, straight and rigid because he was looking up, waiting for the display to change. A little lower down that wall and I could check out how his butt curved in his jeans, and…

“No no no, don’t go there, Iris.”

 Next week, I’ll share snippets of new work from some other workshoppers, to display the range of material and treatments that we’re dealing with. The important thing is to show and to see that Philippine literature is very much alive and advancing on many fronts, assuming a variety of voices, styles, and approaches.

Another benefit of this reacquaintance with Los Baños is discovering how the campus has changed and grown since I first visited it as a freshman on the staff of the Philippine Collegian to attend the College Editors Guild of the Philippines conference in 1971. Among my most pleasant encounters this week has been that with a former student from way back, Yvette Co, who now runs the Ginhawa Craft Studio Café in a dome-shaped kiosk in one corner of the sprawling UPLB Alumni Plaza.

IMG_8519.jpg

As its name suggests, it’s a studio, gallery, performance space, and café all in one, a new and natural convergence point for lovers of the arts in Los Baños. Yvette—a Philosophy major who shifted to Interior Design and who now sculpts and paints—leased the space to breathe new life into a campus more known for agricultural studies, and her works and those of other guest artists blend in with that environment, utilizing scraps of wood and other natural objects as might be found in the area.

So thank you, Los Baños, for the warm welcome.

Penman No. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

journalist-bw-laptop-o-e1282144424870.jpg

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2016

 

MY GRADUATE fiction writing workshop—CW 211—opened last month, and I was glad to see that all my 12 or so students were taking fiction with me for the first time. I don’t mind when students study with me over two or three semesters—especially the best ones you want to see through to their first book—but a fresh crop of faces is always a relief of sorts, because you can be assured that everything you say in class will be new to them.

As a first-day practice, I ask the class members to give a brief self-introduction, as a writing workshop is almost like a support group, and requires a certain degree of intimacy, so people should know each other right from the beginning. The self-intros also give me a sense of my students’ backgrounds, from which I might be able to get an idea—albeit a very tentative and imperfect one—of the kind of fiction I can expect from them.

This semester, I have several students coming from Journalism, and I told them, with a semi-serious laugh which they returned, that it was usually the journalists I had the most trouble with in Fiction class. Now why did I say that?

Let me explain, first of all, that I was a journalist myself, and still see myself as a part-time member of the press. Indeed when, in high school, I began firming up my ambition to become a writer, it wasn’t to become a novelist or a short story writer—it was to become a journalist, in the belief that there was nothing nobler and more exciting than to get the news and be the first to tell the world about it. I achieved that ambition—or at least the start of it—when I was hired as a general-assignments reporter by the Philippines Herald and later as a suburban correspondent by Taliba in 1972, as an 18-year-old dropout, but martial law put an abrupt end to that. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later, in 1993, when I was back in a newsroom, though no longer as a reporter but as an editorial writer for TODAY, and in 2001 as a copyeditor for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, about the same time that I began writing this Lifestyle column for the STAR.

That’s not much of a career as lifelong journalists go, but it’s been enough to leave me with a healthy respect for the work that journalists do, especially in comparison to that of the fictionist, which I became as well. Both are difficult, and require their own kind of discipline; neither is particularly remunerative, although journalism, if undertaken as a regular job, will at least provide a steady income, while fiction must remain a strictly part-time avocation for 99% of its practitioners in this country.

When I teach a class in Creative Writing, I always tell my CW majors that they should never feel superior to journalists, because they don’t know what it’s like to have to find, write, and turn in a story every afternoon of every working day. Creative writing students like to bitch that they don’t have enough material, enough inspiration, and enough time to finish their magnum opus (which at the end of all that whining might turn out to be profoundly underwhelming). Journalists can’t even complain about these things, because they simply don’t factor into the making and delivery of a news story. Material? That’s for you to find or create. Time? A few hours. Inspiration? Your paycheck. I’ve commiserated beerside with journalist-friends over the travails they had to suffer to get a particular story—but only after the story was sent in, and not before.

So with all this admiration and respect for journalists and their job, why do I say they give me problems as fictionists? I’m generalizing here, of course, but the answer isn’t too far from from what, ironically, is a journalist’s chief virtue: they can’t let go of the facts. They find it very difficult to switch to a make-believe mode, and even when they do, their stories are thinly-disguised newsfeatures wanting in compelling, internally driven drama. When you point out a problem in the narrative—say an unlikely turn in the plot—the journalist’s defense will invariably be, “Well, that’s what really happened!”

Unfortunately, in fiction, “It really happened” just doesn’t cut it. What’s real in fiction is what’s on the page. Real life might provide the material and the inspiration for the fictional story, but that story has to acquire a life of its own, regardless of its origins in fact. This is why I tell my students that everything they submit to the workshop is fair game for criticism, and that they can’t and shouldn’t take it personally when someone comments that “I think the mother in this story is very narrow-minded and selfish,” even if that mother was based on one’s beloved mom—it’s “the mother on the page,” as I call that character, that we’re following, believing, and either rooting for or disliking.

And the first day of fiction class is also when I trot out one of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Mark Twain: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Just think about it: we accept incredible reports in the news that we wouldn’t buy for a minute in a short story, even in a fantasy, because we expect fiction to adhere to an internal dramatic logic, whether it’s set in a garage or in a galaxy far, far away. The factual world has no such givens; things just happen, often for no apparent reason. That’s why fiction had to be invented: to make sense of life in the raw and all of its inconsistencies, paradoxes, and mysteries. (The opinion writer aims to do that as well, but on the plane of the abstract, using words like “justice” and “freedom”, which you normally won’t find in a well-crafted story; they’d be implied.)

If it’s any comfort to the fact-loving journalist, there’s another kind of writer whom I’ve discovered to have equal difficulty transitioning to fiction: the poet, for whom every word and turn of phrase is painfully precious, and a ten-page story might as well be an epic. But that’s fodder for another time.

 

[Image from thenextweb.com]

Penman No. 182: In NVM’s Footsteps

IMG_7884.jpg

Penman for Monday, January 11, 2016

 

 

I’M WRITING this in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where I’ve come with a group of writers, most of them visiting Filipino-Americans, for the second and closing leg of the NVM Gonzalez Workshop, organized and led by NVM’s son Dr. Michael Gonzalez. Last year, 2015, marked the centenary of the late National Artist’s birth, and Myke thought that it would be fitting to hold the workshop, now on its sixth iteration, in the place most closely associated with his father, Mindoro.

NVM was actually born in my home province, Romblon (“about 60 kilometers and 40 years away,” I like to say), but he grew up in Mindoro, and wrote most of his works about its hardy people and their way of life, even when he moved to the United States. NVM died in 1999, but his memory remains fresh among his friends, colleagues, and former students on both sides of the Pacific. It was to honor that memory that Myke put this group together for both a workshop and a literary pilgrimage to the Philippines.

This year’s US-based contingent includes Mary Grace Bertulfo, who has written for television and children’s education and who runs a children’s creative writing workshop, Taleblazers, in Chicago; Anna Alves, a PhD student with the American Studies Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Chris “Kawika” Guillermo, a mixed-race Asian-American with Chinese, Filipino and Irish roots who has a PhD in English from the University of Washington, specializing in Asian and Asian-American fiction; Lisa Suguitan Melnick, a third-generation Filipina-American, an adjunct professor at the College of San Mateo and a contributing writer for PositivelyFilipino.com; Penelope Flores, a retired mathematician and educator from San Francisco State University; Myke Gonzalez, of course, who teaches Philippine Studies and Behavioral Science at the City College of San Francisco; and Evelina Galang, the workshop director, an accomplished fictionist who directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Miami.

Their local counterparts were Kat Cruz, a UP Business Administration graduate and company executive with a keen interest in writing; Meeko Camba, a young opera singer now studying Journalism in UP; Sarah Matias, a Creative Writing major who now runs Ant Savvy Creatives, a marketing and events company; Marily Orosa, a prizewinner publisher of coffee table books; Timmy Tuason, an expert in instructional design, materials development and project management; Jojo Hosaka, a surgeon and dog-show judge (and, like Timmy, a fellow fountain-pen enthusiast); Claire Agbayani, a graduate writing student at DLSU and PR practitioner; Judith Castillo, a teacher of English in Calapan; and Raul Manicad, an engineer, businessman, and guitarmaker. Myke and Evelyn were backstopped on the teaching staff by veteran fictionist Charlson Ong and myself.

We held the first part of the workshop from January 4 to 5 at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where NVM had taught for many years in the 1950s, in the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the College of Arts and Letters Library, which my office—the UP Institute of Creative Writing—administers as a repository of contemporary Philippine and Southeast Asian literature. From January 6 to 9, we moved to Calapan, where NVM used to go from their home in Mansalay to type out his manuscripts at the municipio, on paper that, Myke recalls, NVM apparently “borrowed” from the municipal government, whose stamp it bore.

The mixed composition of the group and the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds led to some very interesting discussions dealing with identity, race, language, and representation. While this was a writers’ workshop focused as much on technique as one’s philosophy of writing, inevitably the politics of writing took the foreground, given the Fil-Ams’ engagement with the issues that come with writing as a minority in America.

We talked about how the writer’s political positions define or feed into craft and technique, and how they shape the story itself. Understandably, given the environment they operate in, our US-based friends were keen on discussing the representation of race, of the Other, and the depiction of character in a racially or ethnically charged environment. We agreed that it was important to be accurate and to be fair in creating characters who will inevitably be seen to represent their race, whatever they may be; on the other hand, I interjected, it was just as important to remember that the character had first to succeed as an individual in the story, and that the character could even—and more interestingly—go against type; while we share many beliefs and practices as Filipinos, not all Filipinos think alike, and thankfully so.

The discussions also became a mutual revelation of what it was like to write as a Filipino and as a Filipino-American, and how we could be so similar yet also different in many ways. It wasn’t just the vocabulary, but the sensibility that came into play. In the end, we took the cue from NVM himself, who once famously explained his use of language thus: “I write in Filipino, using English.”

I learned a new word from Myke, who has a background in the social sciences—schismogenesis, promoted by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, which roughly translates into how groups proliferate by breaking up. The context was the oft-made observation of how Fil-Ams and their organizations tend to fall apart because of personal and political differences (by one account I read, there are more than 3,500 Fil-Am organizations in Southern California alone)—a tendency we uniformly deplore. But Myke’s new word suggests a positive aspect, a way by which a race and its culture propagates itself.

We’d like to thank our hosts—the Madrigal-Gonzalez clan, for the use of the reading room in UP; Myke’s sister Selma, who spread out a very generous merienda for us; the Mother Butler Guild of Calapan, who conducted a charming putongan ceremony for the visitors; Florante Villarica, who has written a history of Oriental Mindoro and who had us over for dinner at his home; Anya Postma and the Mangyan Heritage Center, who made a wonderful presentation on Mangyan life and culture; and Chicago-based Almi Gilles, who lent us her their family’s beach house in Puerto Galera for our penultimate day in Mindoro.

And thanks, of course, to Myke and the Gonzalez family, for keeping their father’s flame alive.

Penman No. 153: Elderly Expressions

IMG_6478

Penman for Monday, June 15, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on my memoir-writing workshops must have touched a few sympathetic nerves, because I got a number of messages from my fellow seniors asking about the next workshop, and if and how they could get into it. Sadly, I had to tell them that the workshops I mentioned were put together by special arrangement with Marily Orosa, squeezed into a very tight schedule (it’s insane, but I’m working on eight book projects all at the same time, in various stages of completion). It’s still possible that Marily could arrange another workshop for me before the year ends, but that depends on a lot of factors; if it happens, I’ll let you know.

If you’d like to work with me, the best thing to do would be to enroll for one of my graduate fiction or nonfiction workshop courses at the University of the Philippines, possibly as a non-degree student (which will make admission earlier, if you just want to take this one course); I’ll be teaching fiction writing, Fridays 4-7 pm, when I return from my sabbatical leave this August.

I’ve had quite a few senior students in these workshops—and by “senior” I don’t mean that they’re in their fourth year; more likely they’re in their 65th, and just went back to school for a rejuvenating dip in the waters of academia. In many places, they call this “continuing education,” and the good thing about having seniors in class is that not only do they get educated, but the rest of the class as well (myself included), especially the young ones who can benefit from the rich experiences of their elders.

The “oldies” may not always be up to speed as far as the latest and fanciest literary theories are concerned, but they’ll never lack for stories to tell, and you know that when they talk about things like loss or suffering, or bring up words like “rapture” or “redemption,” they’ve looked at life in the eye and kissed it full on the lips, and said some very sweet hellos and some very hard goodbyes.

This isn’t to say, of course, that older people have a monopoly of wisdom or expertise; some of my younger students have amazed me with both the gravity and the finesse of their work, displaying insights well beyond their years. (Let’s not forget that Jose Rizal wrote and published the Noli in his mid-twenties.) Conversely, I’ve seen mature students, mired in their prejudices and predispositions, unable to get beyond a dull and sightless monotone in their narratives.

But there’s clearly need for more room within our society for elderly expressions—and I don’t mean just more welfare-type laws to benefit seniors and such initiatives, although we’d certainly be happy if there were more support for the aged among us, especially the poor. I mean more coverage and exposure in the media and even in our literature of older characters and their concerns, going beyond stereotypes and easy expectations. (If you haven’t seen “The Second Most Exotic Marigold Hotel,” you should.)

We need more stories, poems, plays, movies, and articles with older Filipinos, their predicaments, and their achievements in focus—handled realistically, minus the aura we customarily accord to doting grandmothers and kindly uncles. Certainly they can be saintly, but seniors can also be just as vicious and as avaricious as people half their age, and why not? (I’m sure we’ve all heard of that filthy-rich aunt or neighbor who refuses to feed her househelp properly and puts a lock on the refrigerator.) Acknowledging people’s weaknesses as well as their strengths is acknowledging the diversity and individuality of humanity, which is incumbent upon every writer to do.

For the past many years, in my undergraduate literature classes (and yes, I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergraduate class every semester, so our freshmen and sophomores can know what’s it like to be taught by a senior professor, like I did in my time), I’ve taken up two poems that deal with aspects of aging. One of them is “Stepping Westward” by the late Denise Levertov (a mentor of my friend Fidelito Cortes when he was at Stanford). The poem begins thus:

What is green in me / darkens, muscadine. / If woman is inconstant, / good, I am faithful to / ebb and flow, I fall / in season and now / is a time of ripening.

Here, the speaker or the persona asserts her pride in and her comfortability with her advancing years, likening it to the maturing of good wine (muscadine). She has learned to accept—indeed to embrace—the inevitability of aging and death, as a fruit falls off its stem when it ripens. She also fiercely reserves her right to be inconstant and unpredictable, to change her mind if and when she wants to (Angela Manalang Gloria’s sonnet “Change” provides another terrific variation on this theme). She declares that

There is no savor / more sweet, more salt / than to be glad to be / what, woman, / and who, myself.

The poem closes with a wonderful image of life as a basket of bread to be carried—yes, a burden, but also a blessing to be eaten from.

The other poem is a local one, by Merlie Alunan, and is always a hit in class because of a theme that’s practically become taboo in our conservative society: not just female sexuality, but desire in older and unglamorous women (ie, older than Anne Curtis and Solenn Heussaf). The poem is “Young Man in a Jeepney,” which deals with a typical working woman, probably a housewife in her forties or fifties, who takes a jeepney ride home, clutching her bag to her chest, only to find herself seated beside a sweaty young man. The contact, however innocent, stirs up an ancient longing in her:

“Heat,” I mutter. “It melts / the very bones,” feeling / as I say this, inside me /awakening sweet April.

The unsuspecting young man gets off the jeepney and life goes on:

I do not watch you turn / the corner to the sudden dusk / —but I smile to savor /my sin in secret.

So what is that “sin,” I ask my students, and why does she call it so? Is it, indeed, a sin for a respectable and somewhat dowdy matron—and decidedly one of the lower class, the kind who would not have boy toys or affairs with their amigas’ husbands—to feel desire?

Discussions like these remind us that while many things seems to get simpler with age, both by choice and by necessity, human complexity itself doesn’t diminish over time.

Penman No. 152: Writing the Stories of Your Life

Studio5

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2015

TWICE OVER the past three months, I’ve been giving workshops to medium-sized groups of people in my general age range (let’s put that at 50 to 70), people who came together because they had stories to tell, but needed some guidance on how to tell them. These workshops were arranged by the publisher and writer Marily Orosa, who had come up with very engaging book ideas to which these potential writers could contribute, and who thought that it would be a good idea to have a practicing writer give them a bit of coaching before they plunged into the actual task of writing.

I was glad that Marily put these workshops together, first because I’ve always believed that every person has at least one good story in him or her, and that it’s my job as a writing teacher to get that story out of the person. Second, being a senior myself, I’m happy when older people get an opportunity to express themselves in this obsessively youth-centered world.

Many if not most members of my audience were retirees or approaching retirement after many decades of productive work in their professions. One was a former Cabinet secretary and another a university president, among other luminaries, but in the end, it wasn’t one’s position that mattered as much as one’s experiences, which seniors have in spades.

I couldn’t cram a semester’s worth of lessons into a Saturday afternoon, but I did what I could to give them a framework, an approach, and some tools with which to get their stories out of their memories and onto the digital page. First, we talked about the basic difference between life (their life experience, the raw material) and art (the finished product they were expected to come up with).

What do artists—writers, painters, musicians, and so on—do to and with their materials to make works of art? What do artists see in the things around them that most other people don’t? In this way, we try to get people to see their own lives and experiences as matter to be structured and shaped—not to distort the truth (the object, I think, of all honest art) but precisely to get at it and to bring it out, even if it may not always be pleasant—and indeed much art out there is meant to disturb.

We talk about selection, and how the writer or artist chooses material to use directly in the artwork (the text) and leaves other things out (the context), given that you can’t possibly use everything out there. We talk about how artists work with concrete images and objects to suggest ideas, rather than the grand abstractions that, say, editorial writers and philosophers use.

When we consider life experiences, we then talk about distances in space and time, and about physical and emotional distance. Many participants at these workshops, for example, want to talk about travels they undertook to interesting places, and what I try to do is to get them to write something beyond the verbal equivalent of a posed snapshot in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate. A trip to Paris isn’t just ever about Paris, but also, implicitly, about Tagbilaran or Bayombong, wherever it was the narrator or protagonist came from, and it’s that perspective that makes this particular experience of Paris unique.

Writing about the past really involves two protagonists (taking a page from Thomas Larson): the remembered self and the remembering self. Writing about a journey involves not just traversing physical territory, but also that internal space within which the character grows—so the physical journey is always paralleled by an internal, often spiritual, one.

After clarifying these fundamental concepts, I then introduce them to some basic tools of the trade—the elements of fiction which, when carried over to nonfiction, liven up the narrative and make both writing and reading a more engaging experience. We talk about plot, character, theme, point of view, dialogue, description, and setting—how to employ time, how to bring scenes to life, what to say and what to leave out.

I remind them what a lonely and (for most people) unremunerative occupation writing is, but going beyond the money or the lack of it, how important it is to write one’s stories down before the memory deserts or defeats us. It’s especially important for the young to know about how their elders lived and thought. It might take them another 20 years to become receptive readers, but the record will be there, and they’ll be surprised to find, as we ourselves did, how the past anticipated the future in so many ways.

I feel drained at the end of these three-hour workshops, faced with a flood of eager questions, but I also feel elated by all the creative energy I seem to have unleashed among my fellow seniors, and I can only begin to imagine what a touch of art can do to that rich lode of memories lying deep in their many-chambered brains.

Treasures

AND NOW’s as good a time as any to draw attention to the good work done by Marily Orosa’s Studio 5 Designs, which has been in the business of producing not just books but prizewinning ones, lauded both for their design and their substance. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Marily on a couple of coffeetable book projects, most notably De La Salle University’s centennial volume, The Future Begins Here, which I edited and wrote for, and which won a Quill and an Anvil Award (the Quill, Anvil, and National Book Awards are the local publishing and PR industry’s measures of excellence).

Studio 5 has also won NBAs for In Excelsis (The Martyrdom of Jose Rizal) by Felice P. Sta. Maria and The Tragedy of the Revolution (The Life of Andres Bonifacio) by Adrian Cristobal. Malacañan Palace (The Official Illustrated History) by Manuel Quezon III and Jeremy Barns also won a host of local and international awards, as did the magnificent Treasures of the Philippine Wild. Freundschaft/Pagkakaibigan (celebrating 60 years of friendship between Germany and the Philippines) will be included in the prestigious international design annual, Graphis.

Beyond being visual treats, these are all significant books, and their creators and publisher deserve high praise and encouragement.

Penman No. 151: A Workshop in Biography


IMG_7561

Penman for Monday, June 1, 2015

BECAUSE OF my trip to Canada, I was able to attend only one day of this year’s UP National Writers Workshop, which took place from May 10 to 17 in Baguio. I immediately went to work that morning leading a discussion of a biographical project submitted by one of the twelve fellows.

It was a topic I was keenly interested in, because of my own work in biographical writing. (Two of my biographies—A Man Called Tet: The Story of Enrique T. Garcia, Jr. and Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner—were published and launched recently by Anvil Publishing and the University of the Philippines Press, respectively.) I’m at work on a few more, and if it becomes my lot to be known primarily for my accounts of other people’s lives than for my own fiction, then I can’t complain, having assumed a rather unique responsibility and occupation, among a few others in our writing community.

As a grade-schooler, I devoured biographies in the library, finding that the lives of successful or significant people—whether here or in faraway lands—inspired me to try harder and do more in my own difficult existence. I especially enjoyed the life stories of scientists, explorers, soldiers, artists, and heroes. Of course, these elementary editions were highly simplified, and very likely glossed over the human imperfections—sometimes gross—that these characters possessed, which more mature biographies would reveal if not revel in. No matter; at that time, the overarching greatness of their deeds lent a luminous aura to these characters’ profiles, and I have to believe that I emerged all the richer for reading those books.

The idealization of a life was one issue we discussed at the workshop. There are many kinds of biographies, and I took the occasion to go over a simple classification of these kinds.

On one extreme would be hagiography—literally, writing about saints, and therefore the sunny sanctification of the subject as though everything that he or she did were beyond reproach. On the dark end would be the hostile or malicious biography, written for no other reason than to malign its subject as indelibly as possible, even at the expense of the truth. To its left would be the critical biography—a sober, perhaps scholarly, and more even-handed study of a life, sparing nothing and no one (least of all the subject) in pursuit of the presumptive truth, although these works could also carry their own agenda.

Farther on would come the kind of work that I and some others do on commission, for which I’ve coined the term “sympathetic biography,” a largely positive presentation of a subject’s life—without skirting, however, the major controversies and issues publicly known to involve the subject. Is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Realistically, I would expect not, and not because I think my subjects deliberately lie to me, but because it’s in human nature to present the best side of oneself. (I think Dolphy set the bar for searing candor and self-awareness in his autobiography, Hindi Ko Ito Narating Mag-Isa; I can’t imagine politicians or business figures being so open about their private lives.)

A sympathetic biography may be a half-filled glass to many, but it puts something on the table to be seen and seen through. I expect—I would hope—that whatever I write about my subject will be interrogated by more knowledgeable critics and scholars. This is why I urge my clients to be as forthright as possible and to deal with whatever issues they may have been embroiled in, because we live in a highly skeptical environment where questions never cease, especially online.

But to get back to the workshop, we were glad to succeed in our continuing quest for the discovery and encouragement of bright new writing talent across the archipelago. The UP Writers Workshop is different from most others in that it engages mid-career writers—people of proven ability with at least one published book, or major stage or film production to their name. We deal with them less as students than as younger brothers and sisters in the profession.

The critics of writing programs and workshops who think that all they produce are clones and sound-alikes of those teaching these courses should take a look at our roster of fellows and their work. These young writers sound nothing like us, and even after the workshop, they’ll continue working with their own material in their own styles, because we instructors do our best to recognize and preserve the originality of their voices.

The best help we can give them is to provide a response—whether it be a gut reaction or a learned reading that draws on a certain context—from our side of the generational divide, although they get responses as well from their peers, which might just be more useful and valuable to them, coming from people who share their vibe.

This year, we welcomed the following: Jack A. Alvarez (Creative Nonfiction); Armida Mabitad Azada (Poetry); Kristoffer Brugada (Nobela); Resty Cena (Nobela);

Gutierrez M. Mangansakan II (Creative Nonfiction); Isidro T. Marinay (Biography);

Segundo D. Matias Jr. (Kuwentong Pambata); Rhoderick V. Nuncio (Nobela); Will P. Ortiz (Nobela); Benedict Bautista Parfan (Poetry); Charlie Samuya Veric (Poetry); and Eliza Victoria (Fiction). Watch these names, because if you haven’t read or heard about them already, you will soon.

What many don’t realize is what a precious resource we have in these programs and workshops here in our part of the world. Our friends from the region have begun to notice what a liberal and nourishing environment we have for young writers. There’s still patronage and paternalism in the system to be sure—this is Asia, after all—but it’s much less pronounced and potentially stifling than elsewhere. Our tradition is for the younger ones to tell their elders “Up yours!”—until they start putting on the poundage and the gray hairs themselves.

Speaking of writing programs, it was with great alarm and dismay that I received news of the planned closure of one of Asia’s most unique and successful graduate writing programs—the low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the City University of Hong Kong.

The low-residency formula allows students from Hong Kong and around the region to enroll for an MFA and work online with mentors from all over the world, flying in to HK just once or twice a year for intensive workshops and face-to-face interaction. Some Filipinos have gone through the program, and I’ve had the privilege to lecture and to read at a couple of sessions over the years.

The City University administration says that the program costs too much to maintain, but ironically the program turned the corner this year financially, so it can’t be just the money. We wonder if someone up there sees creative writing as a threat to socialism with Chinese characteristics. City U ‘s mandarins should know that Hong Kong’s and China’s prestige and goodwill derive from programs like this—and not from building lighthouses and airstrips in the South China Sea.