Penman No. 393: Room Without a Window

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Penman for Monday, August 2, 2020

 

AT THE desk where I work at home—in my library-cum-man-cave—I face a wall without open windows, which can be confining and depressing, except that it’s the way I like things to be, if I want to get anything done. In my light-headed moments, I think that it would be nice to have a home office perched on top of the house, overlooking everything else, preferably water on one side and a grove of trees on the other. But I’ve lived long enough to know that faced with such beauty, I’d most likely just sit back and drift off to fitful slumber, or get distracted by some unfolding action, a moving blip that will quickly become an excuse to put off the inevitable for another day.

As I might have related here before, this “writer-in-paradise” scenario has happened to me too many times to realize that, alas, it doesn’t work. Like every young writer, I once swore that all I needed was time off in some faraway place, with a view of islands or green rolling hills and a blanket of fog, with an endless supply of coffee—and, all right, a bottle of wine and in those days a carton of Marlboro Reds—to produce the novel that would put a book with my name on the spine in every thinking person’s library.

As it happened, well—it happened. As if I’d stumbled on a fat and over-indulgent genie, I got most of my wishes (except for my Great Gatsby, not yet), in the form of writing fellowships to many of the world’s dreamiest destinations: a cliffside castle in Scotland, a Roman villa in Lombardy, and a 15th-century fortress in Umbria; in my longest engagement, I spent nine months in a Norwich apartment with a huge window that opened to what the English call a “broad,” a small lake dotted with black swans.

You’d think that visual majesty like this would beget a torrent of prose and poetry, and to be fair to my sponsors and to myself, I did eventually produce what I had been expected to. At Hawthornden in Scotland, for example—where I had been preceded by the likes of Ricky de Ungria, Krip Yuson, and Marj Evasco—I was able to write four stories in four weeks, including “Penmanship” and “Voyager,” which became the title-pieces of story collections.

Over the other stays, I labored on drafts which I completed in a mad hurry only after I had returned to Pinoy suburbia and its familiar smog, to the racket of jeepneys and tricycles and the inescapable fragrance of mangoes and bagoong. When you’re in a hostel in Paris or on a boat in Lake Como, the last thing you want to do is write; you tell yourself, in all honesty, “Right now, I just want to live,” so you breathe in the foreign air and step on the grass and imbibe the local brew (or, as I did when I first encountered the Atlantic on the Jersey shore, dip your finger into the ocean and taste it). I did a lot of living, with the writing to follow after.

All that blessed laziness would catch up with me later, in sternly immobile deadlines that consume me with what truly drives me to write and deliver—a deep and abiding sense of guilt, of having enjoyed myself too much with too little to show for the experience (even 40-plus books later, the guilt lingers). And then I turn into a writing machine, in my small room filled with the kind of knickknacks—the old typewriters, the Mabini seascapes, the Rizal bust, the box of chocolates, chips, and crackers—that tell me I’m home and relatively safe, with no one to bother me but Beng and our three-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, who has diplomatic license to disturb me anytime.

I may have no windows where I work, but in front of me are two paintings—a nude by E. Aguilar Cruz from 1975 and another by C. V. Lopez from 1950 (which prompted Buboy to ask, “Why do they have no clothes?”, to which I could only say, “Because it’s hot!”); a large print of the Strait of Basilan from the 1840s; two hand-colored maps of the Philippines from the 1750s by Jacques Bellin; a map of my home province, Romblon, from the Atlas de Filipinas of 1899; and a poster of the Parker Duofold Centennial fountain pen from 2000. When I look at them, horizons open in my mind.

I don’t have a large collection of maps (it’s one of those little voices telling me “Don’t go there!”), but I do like this view of islands, which substitutes for all the pretty landscapes I’ve seen outside my windows elsewhere, reminding me at once of home and of the world beyond. The fact that they are centuries old assures me, like my musty books, that there was a past, that history happened—that there will be a reckoning, and that the books will be written by people like me.

And then I feel the guilt lifting, replaced by an urge to write, and even an incipient pleasure at knowing that whatever I type will survive me, be it trash or treasure, so I have to do a good job of it, now, while I’m still awake and alert to every minute ticking by.

 

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 49: Penmanship

In solidarity with fellow artists sharing their work to entertain others over the lockdown, I’m happy to present this copy of “Penmanship,” a short story I wrote in 1994 at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I was on a fellowship to write a book. As some readers know, there’s a story behind that story having to do with my serendipitous acquisition of a “grail” pen, a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy that figures centrally in the story.

Here’s the back story, from a column I wrote in 2009:

In 1994, on a writing fellowship in Scotland, I visited the Thistle Pen Shop in downtown Edinburgh, whose address I had found in the phone book. (Every time I travel to a new city, I look over the yellow-page listings for pen shops, resale shops, and antique stores.) On a lark, I asked the lady behind the counter, “Would you happen to have a 1930s Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red?” That pen, at that time, was my “Holy Grail” pen, something I had been fantasizing about since seeing its picture in a catalog. The lady beamed at me and said, “As a matter of fact, we do!” And then she whipped the pen out from under the counter, much to my great surprise, disbelief, and grief—grief, because I was sure I couldn’t possibly afford it, unless I went deep in debt via my credit card. And that, of course, was what happened. I carried that pen home with as much care and wonderment as I would have accorded a newborn baby, but I was almost immediately stricken with buyer’s remorse. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “how could I have spent a whole month’s salary—the rent, the groceries, the bills, etc.—on a single pen?” To soothe my throbbing conscience, I resolved to write a story about—guess what—a fountain pen. That was the story “Penmanship,” which later won a prize that made up for my precious Parker’s purchase price.

So here we go, and pleasant reading.

PENMANSHIP

THERE WAS nothing better on the earth that could write, he had often thought, than his Parker Vacumatic fountain pen, a brown-striped, gold-nibbed model made in 1938. It wasn’t him but the pen, gliding across the foolscap, filling in the vastness of the page with words that may not have meant all that much but which looked beautiful because of the personality and the infinite variety of their shape. 

            He was in love with his pen and his penmanship, and he exercised that love in letters to old friends and schoolmates, casual acquaintances, even anonymous business addressees—such as his memorial-plan company, when he missed a premium payment—surprising them with an old-fashioned grace that had long lost out to the perfunctory mechanism of typewriters and computer printouts. The typesetters had swirling fonts that looked elegant enough to most people in need of script for wedding invitations and that sort of rare emergency, but it still seemed too regular, too measured, for him who valued the spontaneity of wet ink insinuating itself into the barely visible fibers of the paper, like so much blood into so many veins. It was the only art he knew—he spent his days as a senior clerk at a government institute for blind and handicapped people, housed in a decrepit mansion along Harrison Street in Pasay—and now, close to retirement and facing not much more than an awesome blankness of years, he applied himself to it with a vigor that his recessive frame belied.

            “Dear So-and-So,” he would begin, “I was browsing through my books today, thinking to toss out some mangy paperbacks to free up space on the shelves, when I came across the copy of Salinger’s Nine Storieswhich you borrowed about eight years ago. What caught my attention was the receipt that you’d stuck in it, a restaurant bill (at the Selecta), for the dinner that we must have had when you returned the book—two soft drinks, a salad (for you), a chicken sandwich (for me), three cups of coffee (yours and mine) and a slice of cheesecake (yours), all for the glorious bargain of P69.50. And it all came back to me, how depressed you felt then about losing J. after all those years, and how someone like Salinger perked you up in the strangest ways. You’ll remember that he writes about depressed people all the time, but he manages to save some of them, usually with the entry of a child into the picture….”

            And he would go on and on for a few pages, not caring too much if So-and-So wished to be reminded of the darknesses of his or her distant past. The pen pushed him on to one word and another, creating a sudden and inescapable intimacy less between himself and So-and-So but between him and the paper, and he mailed these letters off almost as an afterthought, and at that with a twinge of sorrow, because he would never see them again.

            He was no calligrapher—his script was somewhat crabbed, and his terminal g’s and y’s had a tendency to spill over onto the next word—and he thought nothing of crossing out an offending word or line and writing on the margins. That was part of the whole game: to explore, to retreat and retrace one’s steps, to leap here and tiptoe there, to fall into a pit and crawl out grinning. The finished page was a record of his ventures, mishaps and all; perhaps he wanted them to see how he had triumphed in the end, to his very-truly-yourses.

HE MIGHT have become a writer, but never did. In his twenties, when things were better and his physician-father had given up on turning his son into another scribbler of prescriptions, he had come out of college with an English degree, thinking to teach and to write novels in his spare time. He taught for a while in a downtown university, preaching the timeless virtues of Joyce’s “Araby” to brown pug-nosed faces intent on becoming engineers and chemists, and resigned—or, some said, was kicked out—when he fell in love with an older, married co-teacher, who did not return his blathering affections and had complained to their superiors. Besides, he felt ill at ease with masses of people, who scratched their toes and dreamed aloud of Sundays while he tried to impress upon them the nuances of Joyce’s play with light and shadow. He found another job as a librarian for another college, staying there for years and revelling in the solitude of his corner desk in a quiet hall, until the school went bankrupt and closed down, disposing of all its books to the second-hand dealer, and of its employees to their various fortunes. He had begun a few stories at his desk, perhaps a novel even, but the towering proximity of the greats on the shelves humbled him—a modest man, otherwise—into incompletion, and he took to writing letters to newspaper editors in long, handwritten essays, paragraphs from which would get printed now and then in severely truncated form. His prose, he knew, was too quaint and longwinded for the papers, but it pleased him to flex his hand and to leave a record, somewhere, of his thoughts in passing, of his passing.

            “Dear Sir,” he would say—in a frame of mind that would admit no women to editorships—”Anent your editorial of June the 21st, it strikes me that the Guadalupe area might be better served by a bridge spanning the Pasig at a point helpful not only to the traffic overhead, but to river transport itself, the possibilities of which, I feel, have sorely been neglected since Rizal’s time….” Several paragraphs later, he would sign his name with a flourish, blow lightly over the hardening ink, wipe the Parker’s nib clean with a tissue, and screw the cap back on slowly, as if he were slipping a ring onto a woman’s finger, so as not to crush the thread.

            He took the utmost care of this pen. It was unusual in its design, even for fountain pens of its time, without a lever or a bladder; it was filled by unscrewing a nearly invisible cap in the rear of the barrel, and unlocking a pump that, with a diaphragm, drew a week’s worth of ink into the translucent cavity of the barrel itself. He had taken it in for servicing only twice in more than thirty years—there was still a shop on the Escolta that did repairs on such old pens, now run by a Chinese woman who inherited the place from her father. He sometimes wondered what would happen if that shop were to close down, as well; everyone was using ballpoints and rollerballs, and the shop’s business now consisted mainly in such garish conveniences. Or perhaps he would die first, and take his Parker with him, tucked into his breastpocket, unless the funeral-parlor attendant stripped its nib and clip off for their gold. It was one of his most distressing nightmares—not to die, but for the pen to be so savaged after him.

            The pen had been a gift from his father upon his graduation from high school—an heirloom, practically, as it had been used both by his father and his grandfather, who had been an accountant for a shipping firm in Binondo. His grandfather’s name was still imprinted faintly on the barrel, a three-part, Spanish-sounding name. That, and a magazine advertisement for a stationer’s company that he chanced upon in the stacks of the college library, told him exactly how old it was: 1934, a few years before he was born, when the large and airy house on Donato Street must have been spanking white, and his mother would have been swishing about in a terno, minding the lilies in the vases. All that was gone, but for the pen—his parents, the family wealth, the breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder. The house had long been torn down to make way for a grocery, and when he passed it by in a jeepney, the last time, he could barely recognize the lot, but for the ancient fire hydrant on the corner. 

            He had a few friends from college, mostly members of large, comfortable families and getting on in years themselves, with whom he kept up a lopsidedly unilateral correspondence. There was one phone in the office, but few would call, and he didn’t appreciate that as much as the occasional postcard from Paris, or Crete, or Jogjakarta, when they remembered him at all. So-and-So had been a woman who had lost her husband to a 19-year-old singer; she had been a bright young thing in college and he might have gone for her himself, but for his shyness. He had given her books of poetry, with lavish dedications, but she had not taken—or had refused—the hint. When he fell for that co-teacher, all caution, for once, flew out the window.

            “My sweet, my lovely Alice,” he would write, with all the ardor of his mid-twenties, “The mere sight of you in the cafeteria this morning warmed my cooling coffee, and I wished that I had been younger and been one of your students, not that Avogadro’s number interests me so much as your own child-bearing figure….”

            Now, in his fifties, he could not tell how and why he had been so brash. All the daring left in him went to his letters and his penmanship. He thought himself bold for suggesting that bridge, or a new way of determining the fitness of people for the civil service, or a theory—which he mailed to the police but which was never acknowledged nor acted upon—about who murdered the young wife, then six months pregnant, of a Bacolod sugar planter. In his thirties, he had sought and paid for the services of a few women—just after his father died and he came into some money—but they meant nothing to him; no challenge nor poetry nor romance there, just cash and urgent venery. Now he was content with occasionally relieving himself, or with nature and nighttime attending to him in bed. He was, in fact, losing his potency, not that it mattered to anyone else. He lived in a room in a boardinghouse on Dos Castillas Street in Sampaloc, two jeepney rides away. The other boarders—all of them men and mostly maritime engineering students—saw him to be a reclusive and mild-spoken bachelor uncle who preferred to wear Chinese-cotton boxer shorts, which he laundered himself and hung out to dry in the space behind the kitchen.

AND THEN, as it so happened, and against his better judgement, the penman fell in love again.

            She was one of the blind people his institute had taken to employing to offer public proof of its sincerity in assisting the disabled. Her name was Nora, and she was thin and pale-looking, and she had been blinded in an accident in her early twenties so that she retained a clear and powerful idea of what colors and figures were like; she had finished high school as a normal, sighted person, and would have gone on to a degree in law or economics, but for that accident. She had taught herself quickly to read Braille, to lose no time in adjusting to her physical circumstances, and now went through daily life without too much trouble. But she armed herself with the forwardness of those unjustly burdened to reclaim and to prove their worth.

            She was assigned to his charge, and when they first met they did not like each other all that much. He thought her an intrusive nuisance, and she thought him an overbearing fool. Her job was to help him organize the office files—very few things were computerized, and the only computer sat idly in the Director’s office—and his job was to train her, somehow, in knowing where everything was by sheer position and feel. The trouble, of course, was that he observed his own idiosyncratic filing system; that was part of his mastery of the place.

            “I know where everything is,” he told her from behind his desk. “Perhaps we can find something more useful for you to do.”

            “But you won’t be here forever,” Nora said, staring in the direction of his voice. “Someone else will need to know the system.”

            He adjusted some papers on his desk to avoid her eyes. “They’ll be giving you my job, are they?”

            “Oh, no—sir,” she answered quickly. “I can’t do that—obviously.” She looked away. An uneasy silence passed between them, during which he noticed that her hair was thick and shiny, and she noticed that his breathing was somewhat labored, although she could smell no trace of tobacco in the room. She heard a scraping of wood and knew that he was rising from his chair.

            “Well, then, let’s get to it. We have three filing cabinets in this room—here, here, to your left—and the files are arranged by subject rather than years. All invoices in the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, then personnel records—now we’ll need to put tabs in Braille on every file—I wonder what the use of all of this is,” he thought aloud, and immediately felt sorry when he saw her biting her lip. He never meant to be unkind, but his social graces had withered from disuse. “Would you like some coffee?” He kept an old thermos bottle of hot water and a jar of instant coffee behind his desk. 

            She seemed startled by his offer. “No, I—”

            “It’s nearly coffee break, anyway,” he said. “You can leave and come back in fifteen minutes, or you can have some coffee with me.” She heard the bottle being unscrewed and smelled the fragrance of steaming cork, but she remained in her chair. All by herself she would have spent those fifteen minutes sitting in another chair she knew in the lobby, listening to the traffic, to the rush of people and the streetside commerce; the afternoon tabloids would be out, but no one really shouted out the headlines anymore. She heard him making two cups of coffee with identical clinks of the teaspoon. “One teaspoon of sugar?”

            “Two. Thank you.”

            He paused briefly and she knew he was looking at her, surely wondering what misfortune had delivered her to this place, this room, this moment of utter pointlessness. There was a small scar on her right cheek, away from him, where they had made a suture that had healed badly, and her hand went up to it absently.

            “I’m sorry about your—your accident,” he said, depositing a cup beside her on the desk. She felt a whiff of vapor up her sleeve.

            “So am I,” she said, realizing with a great annoyance that he had been glancing at her own file, the papers that came with her and bared her unprotected to this absolute stranger. She went on the offensive and said, before sipping her coffee, “Please tell me something about yourself.”

            He seemed taken aback. “There’s—there’s not much to say. I’ve been working here for—oh, nine years now, and before that I worked in a library. I suppose I like quiet places, and—and quiet people, are you a quiet person, Miss—”

            “Nora. Have you ever gone abroad?”

            “No, why do you ask?”

            “I did, once, when I was young, my parents took me to Hong Kong. That’s all I remember, now.” It wasn’t true; she remembered many other things, but Victoria Peak and a large dark bird darting across the landscape burned in her memory.

            “You’re very lucky, then,” he said, and felt silly again. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll do some work.” He reached for the pen in his pocket.

            “But breaktime’s just begun.” She could hear idle chatter from elsewhere in the building. Someone had opened a window somewhere and the dank heat lifting off the bay, from far off, trailed into her senses.

            “It isn’t really work, I just need to finish a letter.”

            “To whom?”

            “To no one interesting,” he said, to shut her up. He was suddenly glad that she was sightless, and could not know that he had begun a letter to the editor of The Manila Standard, outlining his views on a new plan to contain corruption in the armed forces. He drew the sheet out from his drawer, on which two paragraphs had been written; he needed a strong and witty closure. “… If those we pay to secure our welfare instead secure their own—” That was a neat septameter.

            She heard faint, scratchy motions; she was expecting him to peck away at a typewriter.

            “What are you writing with?”

            “A pen. I—”

            “It doesn’t sound like a ballpoint, it—it doesn’t skip—”

            “It’s not, it’s an old fountain pen—you know, it squirts ink when you press—” He sighed, putting the cap back on halfway, to keep the ink wet on the nib; she was going to be impossible.

            “I’ve never used one,” she said.

            “No, you wouldn’t have. They don’t use them anymore. This one’s older than I am.” Why did he say that, he thought.

            “How old are you—sir?”

            “Fifty-two. And you’re—ah, twenty-eight.” The file again. “You’re nearly half my age. I’ve lived twice as long.”

            “Was it a good life?”

            “It isn’t over, yet.”

            She could feel, almost see, him turn his back to her and scratch away at another table, a smaller one, most likely, where a typewriter might have been, which meant that he had lifted and put the typewriter down on the floor. That explained the soft clatter of metal bones.

            “I can type—perfectly. You’d be amazed. That’s why they sent me here.”

            Over his shoulder, he saw the glint in her eyes. He saw the mended scar. Suddenly he didn’t want to know too much more about her, and gently closed her file.

            “Thank you,” she said.

            “For what?”

            “You shut my folder. I felt the air stir, like a fan.”

            He crossed out a line furiously and put the pen down, uncapped. “It’s nearly three-fifteen,” he said. “It’s time to work.”

THE NEXT few days and weeks, she indeed amazed him with her uncomplaining industry and her prodigious memory. Under his direction, she put title tabs on all the files, and sorted them out by year within the drawers, and could produce a folder that he needed within two minutes. Twice or thrice, he’d tested her just to satisfy himself, and he had learned to rustle the papers afterwards, so as not to be found out. She no longer needled him for details of his private life, nor vexed him with strange, unbidden questions. During the coffee breaks, she sat out in the lobby, and he discovered that now and then she smoked, puffing deeply on Marlboros she kept in a skirt pocket. She wore large, dark-colored, formal-looking skirts and the same cut of blouse in white or beige or some dry pastel shade, and the kind of stubby shoes that nuns and nurses wore to their graves, and he began to wonder where or with whom she lived. There was a Paranaque address in her file, and he knew she took a jeepney in the afternoon, putting on a pair of shades; it was the only time she used a slender aluminum walking stick. He had to cross the street himself to get a ride going the other way, and he made sure not to linger on her side of the street too long, not wanting to upset her. But, having said his gruff goodbyes and crossed, he made sure that she was on a jeepney and safely seated, first, before flagging down his own. In the office, they spoke in low, almost formal tones, and it took a while for him to ask her to stay again for coffee.

            “You’ll be writing letters,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

            “Not today,” he said, quickly and very quietly returning the Parker to his pocket.

            “All right, then—two sugars—”

            “I remember.”

            He made the coffee while she sat in the same chair across his desk. He wondered if she wanted to smoke.

            “You can smoke, if you wish, there’s a saucer you can use for an ashtray—”

            “No, I don’t think I will, thank you. I don’t really want to, it gives me a headache—”

            “Then why do you?” He had bought a special blend, an imported instant, and hoped that she would like it.

            She laughed, smoothing out a crease on her skirt. “It fills up the time.” She felt for the handle on the cup and brought it to her lips. “You’ve been watching me in the lobby.”

            “I—I was getting water for the heater.” He kept a heating coil in a drawer; it was against regulations, but no one bothered him. “What do you think of, when you’re sitting down there?”

            “Nothing interesting,” she said, remembering. “You’ve changed your coffee—”

            “Yes, do you like it?”

            “Will you write me a letter?”

            “What—”

            “I mean, write a letter for me? With your pen. When you’re not too busy.”

            A drop of coffee had fallen on the sheet he would have written on, had she not stayed, and he put his cup down to blot it with a matted handkerchief.

            “Yes, of course, but—why? You’re a marvelous typist, you type better than me—”

            “I need something personal. I want something personal, like it’s been written by a real person. That’s what your letters look like, don’t they?”

            “I suppose so.” He sat in his chair and looked at the coffee stain, a pale yellow-hearted carnation with irregular brown edges.

            “Is your penmanship like a woman’s, would you say?”

            He thought he should feel offended, but did not. “It’s hard to tell. We were trained in school—it was a subject—we all wrote pretty much the same way.” He wanted to take her fingers and wrap them around his pen, to show her: this is how I write my T’s and B’s and G’s.

            “I’d do it myself but I’m clumsy with pens—”

            “I understand. Do you want me to write it now?” His fingers were poised on the Parker.

            She finished her coffee in a deep gulp that caused her to grimace. “There won’t be time. When you’re free, would you come with me to my place? It’s not too far—”

            “Yes, yes, of course, I’m free this afternoon.” He remonstrated with himself over the haste with which he answered, but it was true: there was only the room on Dos Castillas with its punched-out capiz shell windows and the laundry to do.

            “Thank you, you’re very kind,” she said. I haven’t had a chance to be, he thought, not for so long.

THEY ALIGHTED from the jeepney along a street not too far from where the international airport sprawled; a departing jetplane preened its wings in the sky. He had sat beside her during the ride, and she had not said very much beyond giving the driver instructions on where to let them off. When his forearm brushed hers, she trembled and he shrank away, as if embarrassed, as if it were the last thing in the world he would have wanted to happen. She sensed his discomfort and she nearly called the whole thing off, thinking of some dumb apology to make for having taken his time, but it was too late.

            She measured out the sidewalk, tapping her stick against familiar guideposts, and they stopped in front of a modest four-door, two-storey apartment with an iron gate and a large crack running up the mossy wall that separated it from a vacant lot on the other side, overgrown with grass. Greenish water slid through the crack. 

            “Watch your step,” she said. She knew that he wore leather soles; her own shoes had deep rubber grooves. She slid the key into the last door; another, older woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slitting eggplants. This woman seemed surprised to see him, and greeted him formally, which he returned.

            “Munying,” Nora said to the woman, in a tone he had never heard her use, “bring out some softdrinks, please, and leave us alone.”

            “Yes, manang,” Munying said in a schoolgirl’s voice, and did as she was told. Munying served them two bottles of Coke from a refrigerator on which the enamel had begun to crackle like an eggshell, and went out the door.

            He sat on a broad-armed wooden sofa with large floral patterns carved into the backrest. The apartment’s drab pink walls were bare, but for a painting of a nubile provincial woman bathing in a stream, her shoulders glistening forever. Nora had hung her walking stick onto a nail behind the door, and she lit up a Marlboro from her pack with certain, numbered moves, and when, unthinking, he slid the marble ashtray closer to her on the coffeetable, she said “No, please don’t,” and he understood. She had everything within reach, where she remembered them to be.

            “This is all that’s left,” she said, exhaling. “But I live simply—and there’s the job.”

            “What was there before?” he asked.

            “Property. A life.”

            “It isn’t everything,” he said weakly, remembering his own parents and the big house with the adelfa blooming by the gate. You and I, Nora, he was thinking, we have much more in common than you can imagine.

            For a moment she considered a scathing retort, but held back, knowing he was trying to be kind. She forced herself into a happy recollection of Hong Kong in mid-February, bright and chilly, the milk-glass whiteness of lychees, the seamless blue of sky and ocean. “We used to own this whole apartment building, and that lot next door. They’ll be building an office complex on it, soon. Munying said the architects were there, the other day. I just sold it last month, after all these years.”

            “Then you’re better off than I am. You have savings. You can put them in a time deposit, or in the stock market.” He felt slightly put off by her revelation, as though she had seen him all along to be a scrawny little man, as though she had been spending someone else’s time while hoarding her own.

            “That letter—”

            “Yes?” He would be glad to be done with it quickly, and leave.

            “Promise you won’t ask me any questions.”

            It hardly seemed fair, but yes, he promised.

            “There’s some paper on top of the refrigerator. Munying uses it to write her people in Ozamis.”

            Why didn’t you ask her, he thought, taking the blue-ruled pad of yellow paper. He settled back into his seat, positioning the pad on the armrest, and uncapping his pen. He gave it two taps in the air to let the ink out. He felt like a secretary taking dictation on her lunch break.

            “Are you comfortable?” she asked.

            No, he thought, but let’s have it.

            She took another drag and the smoke swirled around her face like a windblown scarf. She thought of a man, this other man, receiving and reading her letter in the hard, unpolluted light of another country, another season. Would he read it in the open meadow, or in his room, on the table with the gooseneck lamp—Munying had described the picture, many years ago, the very last one he had sent—and would he smile and keep it in his pocket, like a charm against evil and temptation, against forgetfulness and the plangent sorrows of separation?

            “Nora—”

            “Yes. ‘My dearest Mark,’“ she began to dictate, and shut her eyes.

            “‘Mark’?” he asked, involuntarily, and he knew there would be no answer.

            “‘—’You’ll be surprised to hear from me again, after all this time, and to see me writing—yes, with my own eyes and fingers’—” She paused, flinching at what she had brought herself to say, then smiling with the overspilling confidence of the damned. “—’With my own eyes and fingers, although they’ve changed, if you remember anything at all. I’ve changed’—please underline the ‘I’—in the most remarkable ways, since—since my operation in—in Hong Kong…. Oh, yes, I’ve been back there, many times, with Terry and Susan and some friends you never met….”

            “Is that ‘Terry’ with a ‘y’?” he asked, although he had already written it down, to give her more time, to suppress his own rampant disbelief.

            “—’It’s strange how things work out, and they do, they do…. You were afraid to know what would happen, weren’t you, but so was I. I’m sorry about all those letters then, things were so fresh, so confused, I could barely get myself to type your name…. My darkest fear—a bad pun, isn’t that?’—”

            “Are you asking me, or—or Mark?”

            “Please,” she said, and he wrote the phrase down. “—‘Was that of facing a wall or a fence I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t jump over them, you know, not knowing what was on the other side….’” She gave him time to catch up with her. She could hear the furious scratching of the nib, the dashes, the full stops and the commas. “‘I took this jump and here I am, whole and alive and well again, though a little short of breath…. Last summer I joined the girls on a weekend trip to Boracay. I’m sorry I can send no pictures, I gained some pounds where you don’t want them. I can’t show you everything just yet, can I?… A German tourist—an anesthesiologist, he said—flirted with us, but I remembered you. I’m thinking of taking a trip out to Germany, sometime—not to visit this tourist, silly—or somewhere in Europe, just to see the castles and cathedrals, the changing colors of the leaves, maybe Spain, maybe England—should I cross over the Atlantic and see you? Is it pretty in New Jersey? Maybe not just yet, don’t you think?… They say you’re a paralegal now, I suppose that means you’ll be a lawyer very soon like you’d always wanted to be…. That’s good, let nothing’—” She paused to crush the stub of her cigarette on the ashtray, and then lit up another one immediately. “—’Let nothing get in the way of what you want. That’s how I think, I wouldn’t have survived, otherwise. I want you to be happy. I, want, you’—’“

            His pen hovered above the paper like a dragonfly. He could not bear to look at her. She was shrouded in smoke, she willed the smoke to happen, to be there between them.

            “I want you to have a good life, and to think well of me. Always, with love, Nora.”

            He was about to cap his pen when she raised a finger, and he wrote again.

            “Just a short PS, please. ‘I’ve sent something to your account. I hope the number hasn’t changed. The market’s been doing very well, no need to be embarrassed, you’ll need it more than I do. I think I know how paralegals live in New Jersey. I can imagine’—Would you cross out that last line, please?”

            “‘I can imagine’?”

            “Yes.”

            He drew a line across the phrase but it was easy to read through. It seemed a fair compromise between saying and not saying. “Is that all?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you—would you like me to write out the address on an envelope?” He had seen no envelopes where the paper was.

            “No, thank you. I’ll… I’ll type out the address, he’ll be surprised when he opens it.”

            “We forgot the date.”

            “It doesn’t matter…. Do you think he’ll believe it was me?”

            He caught a blob of ink on the tip of the nib with his thumb. Old pens did that, when they were nearly empty, or when you took them up in airplanes, not having been designed to fly. “That depends on how much he remembers.”

            She thought that over and said, “I know he’ll think it was mine.”

            With everything to ask but nothing more to say, he put the Parker Vacumatic back in his pocket, and took his leave. Munying was at the gate, munching on a banana she had gotten from somewhere.

THAT NIGHT he could hardly sleep, wracked by a welling clamor in his chest. It was as if he was growing another pair of arms and hands within—all of them, all of him, wanting to hold her, then to shake her, then to clutch her tightly when she shook. Nora, Nora, he thought, what are you doing to yourself, what are you doing to me?

            He wondered what he would say to her when she came in for work in the morning. She would act, he was sure, as if nothing at all had happened. He would offer coffee, and she would decline, preferring the vacant lobby to his piercing gaze. He might play dumb, and wait until she imploded from the burden of her lie, but he could not. He despaired in knowing that she was stronger than he was.

            He sat up, against the wall, at the head of a tube-iron bed with flaking paint that might have come from a hospital. His shorts and the sheets were soaked in yellow by the 40-watt bulblight. His kneecaps shone like brass knobs, and his skin as well had begun to shine like a carapace. There was nothing much for her to see, and the sheer absurdity of what he was thinking made him want to chuckle, but his throat was too parched for even that. When a trio of boarders marched in past midnight from their post-exam carousing, joshing each other in the hallway about a go-go dancer who came this close to being scarred for life by their fingernails, he banged a fist against the wall, and they simmered down instantly.

            He rose from his bed and sat at the little table, by his books, with people like Eliot and Aeschylus and Fitzgerald at his elbow. Yet he would not have them now; they could not have been more dead. What lived in this night was a filthy hurt.

            He saw his pen beside his wallet on the table and angrily filled it with ink. He would write her a letter she would never read in his own hand, but no matter; he would, one morning, punch it out in Braille, or shout it to her face, or give up his own eyes for her to see what she had caused. He felt overcome with precious feelings.

            The Parker Vacumatic glinted in the room light, poised to strike. It was ringed with bands of gold, and promised a wealth of words. The merest pressure on its nib could deepen an emotion.

            The pen felt heavy, never felt heavier in his hand, but he could not even tell if he should call her “dear.”

(You can find “Penmanship” and 40 other stories of mine in Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, published by Anvil Publishing in 2019, and available from Anvil online and at National Book Store.)

Penman No. 254: Another Filipino Writer in Norwich

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Penman for Monday, June 12, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 208: Back to the Basics

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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. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

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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. 165: Going for the Bestseller

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Penman for Monday, September 7, 2015

AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER are usually busy months in the cultural calendar, and this year’s been no exception. UMPIL—the Writers Union of the Philippines—held its annual conference toward the end of August, with the economist and columnist Solita “Winnie” Monsod delivering the customary Adrian Cristobal Lecture. On September 1st—perhaps the most important date on many a young Filipino writer’s calendar—the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature were given out, with poetry titan Gemino “Jimmy” Abad arguing eloquently for the power of literary language to create its own reality.

In that same week, National Book Store, among other sponsors, put on the Philippine Literary Festival at the Raffles Hotel in Makati, headlined by visiting authors Matthew Quick and Meg Wolitzer. I went on a panel at that festival with my friends Krip Yuson and Jing Hidalgo, with Marivi Soliven as moderator, to talk about writing the novel. I was surprised to walk into a packed room at the Raffles, despite the fact that Meg Wolitzer was holding forth in another session at the same time.

Now, I’ll admit that I’d never read Meg before, although I’d read about her recent novel Belzhar. She was advertised as a bestselling author, as was Matthew Quick, who wrote The Silver Linings Playbook.

I overheard a mild complaint in the hallway to the effect that the NBDB should have invited the powerhouse cast of Pulitzer prizewinners that Manila festivalgoers have been used to seeing (I remember hosting a chat with the wonderfully encouraging Junot Diaz a few years ago). I didn’t have the time to stop and respond to that comment, but I would’ve said, ”Hey, no problem! There’s a lot we can learn about producing bestsellers! And bestsellers can and should be well-written, too!”

Indeed, in our panel on the novel, one of the recurrent themes that came up was that we Filipinos don’t write enough novels (“We’re world-class sprinters,” I noted, “but not marathoners”), at a time when the only thing international publishers are looking for are novels, which can lead to fat Hollywood contracts and all kinds of other spin-offs.

Toward the end of that discussion, in the Q&A, a young lady in the audience asked about what we (presumably the literary Establishment, going by our senior-citizen cards) thought of newer and less traditional routes to literary fame like Wattpad. Thankfully, I’d heard of Wattpad, and had even actually registered on the site a few months earlier out of curiosity, so I could peek into what was going on there. I knew that Wattpad was generating stories that were already being adapted into commercial movies, so it was more than another digital pastime. (For my fellow 60-somethings, Wattpad’s a website where people—usually very young people—upload stories of all kinds, typically love stories, vampire stories, science fiction, and fantasy.)

I told the questioner that while it was likely that much of the material on Wattpad wouldn’t come up to conventional literary standards, I didn’t see that as a problem. What was important was that—at some level and with little or no intervention from their elders—young people were writing and reading, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Tastes mature and change, and even within those young-adult genres, truly good work is bound to emerge and be recognized and rewarded. And even mainstream literature itself would ultimately benefit from the spillover; as Shakespeare put it, “When the tide comes in, all the ships in the harbor rise.”

But beyond supporting what younger writers were doing, I brought up another pet theme of mine, which is that we older writers write way too serious (if not sometimes inaccessible) stuff, and have thereby separated ourselves from our potential readers. Creative writing has become way too academicized—produced in, for, and by formal writing programs, with little regard for what ordinary readers are really concerned about in their daily lives. In other words, while we seek to develop our readership, or work on the demand side, we should also work on the supply side by writing material of more popular appeal, with little or no reduction in quality.

This train of conversation ran on a couple of nights later at the Palancas, where I had a chance to chat at the sidelines with Graphic fiction editor Alma Anonas-Carpio and essayist Ferdie Pisigan-Jarin. (I don’t smoke—and I would urge everyone not to—but I happen to find people who smoke usually more interesting to chat with than those who don’t, so I usually join the smokers out on the patio of the Rigodon Ballroom at these Palanca dinners, especially when the program—with my apologies to the gracious hosts and the contest winners—goes on for too long.)

I told Ferdie that I suspected that, outside of school, young readers these days didn’t really care much about author’s reputations, or about what critics or other old people say about a work. Ferdie agreed. “We undertook a survey,” he said, “and we found out that what makes young readers decide to buy a book is what they can get of the story from the back cover. They can’t even leaf through the pages, because most books these days are shrink-wrapped.”

From Alma came the astounding news that one young Filipino writer, Marian Tee, was making a regular six-figure income from the Amazon sales of her e-book novels. Though based here, Marian writes dreamy romantic comedies set in places like Greece, with titles like The Werewolf Prince and How Not to Be Seduced by Billionaires, and with covers displaying a surfeit of naked male muscle. The female protagonist may be blond, swears Alma, but she’s really Sarah Geronimo in disguise.

I’m not saying that we should all write like Marian, because we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. But it’s good to know that there’s someone among us who knows the market and can play the global game, because there’s a lot we can learn from her—in adaptability, in audacity, in humility, and in plain hard work.

I don’t think that literature as a fine art will ever be threatened (any more than it already is); there will always be authors who won’t mind being read by a precious few, and thankfully so, because these are the writers who will keep pushing the envelope of language and exploring uncommon sensibilities. For most other writers, or most other times, it’s worth keeping in mind that “bestseller” isn’t necessarily a bad word.

Penman No. 158: A Biographer’s Advice

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Penman for Monday, July 20, 2015

OVER THE past 20 years or so, I’ve been privileged to be asked to write the biographies of many notable Filipinos, an unexpected but interesting digression from writing the stories, novels, plays, and screenplays that used to occupy me. As it is, these days, I spend far more time on other people’s book projects than on my own—not that I mind, as it’s become a second career for me, and as it’s also introduced me to some of the most remarkable people in our country and to their life stories, which can be very instructive and inspiring.

To put things in context, I’m in the business (yes, it is one) of writing commissioned (I call them “sympathetic”) biographies, and as I’ve discussed here before, that creates a unique set of impositions on the writer. Commissioned writers might otherwise be dismissed as paid hacks; I’ve never flinched at being called one (which has happened), because I’m aware of my givens and also of what I can achieve within and despite those limitations.

I’ve often been asked by my students and by other writers thinking of going into biographical writing what it takes to get into this line of work—aside, obviously, from the language skills every professional writer should be assumed to have. I might devote a full column to this one of these days, but for now, let me jot down some notes at random.

Know why you’re doing this. Curiosity will be part of it, and that’s always a good thing, and possibly earning a good sum of money will be, too, but you also have to tell yourself that you’re contributing to social and political history by putting new information on the table.

No, you won’t be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You should make a solemn vow to yourself not to lie or to be a conscious party to a lie, but don’t be under any illusion that you will uncover and reveal everything there is to know about your client. Most clients will either forget, disregard, or downplay the negative aspects of their lives—it’s a natural human impulse. I do advise my clients to be as forthright as possible for the biography’s own good (see below), but the bottom line is, you’re not an independent journalist, so your client will have final editorial approval over what you write. The upside is, even if you’re presenting a half-filled glass at best, it’s still substance for serious scholars and critics to interrogate, so you’re contributing to a hopefully more productive discourse.

You don’t have to like or to admire your client to do a good job. It helps, and I often end up liking and admiring my clients, but I maintain enough distance to allow me to write without gushing, or without sounding like an apologist. I let my clients speak for themselves—especially in instances where I might hold different views; I quote them directly and represent them as fairly as possible, but I also try to raise difficult questions that most informed and intelligent readers will raise anyway.

Be thoroughly professional. Get a signed contract specifying outputs, schedules, and fees. Be prepared to issue official receipts, and pay your taxes.

You can always say no. No matter the money, there are some jobs you just know you have to refuse for one reason or other, and I’ve done that quite a few times.

Clients, too, need some sound advice, even before the project gets off the ground. I get many calls from people planning to have their biographies or that of someone they know written, and this is part of what I tell them.

Don’t go the first-person route. Using the first person (with an “I” talking all the time) gets tiring and tiresome pretty quickly, and almost inevitably sounds self-serving and defensive in its tone. This doesn’t mean that great, honest, and well-modulated autobiographies and memoirs don’t get written; but that takes enormous self-awareness and (ironically) self-effacement. Most people can’t resist thumping their chests. Again, that’s natural, but if you’re truly praiseworthy, it’s best to let others (not your writer, either) point that out. First person limits the number of people who can talk about you to one: you. It blocks out other perspectives—even contrary ones—which can be useful, and which every biography needs for credibility’s sake. You can always be quoted at length, anyway, for more personal insights.

Tell me the truth. Don’t expect me to lie for you. Like a lawyer, I can understand the necessity of nuancing the presentation of certain situations, but I will not deliberately misrepresent the facts. I don’t need or expect to know all your secrets, but I need to be told as much as you can let on, so I can tell your story fairly. If you choose to deliberately leave out entire episodes that could prove embarrassing, that’s your call, but be aware that people will spot the omission, and your credibility will suffer. A biography is your chance to present your side of a controversy, and quite frankly it’s what readers will look for, beyond the predictable catalog of one’s achievements. No one leads a perfect life, and fractures are almost always more interesting than surface sheen.

Be kind, and try not to use your book to settle scores. Like it or not, most big people acquire enemies, and a book’s a tempting opportunity to take potshots at everyone in range. Some of that may be called for, especially when some grave injustice has been sustained, but I counsel my clients to be very sparing with their arrows, which tend to be fired back. I’ve actually walked away from a nearly-finished book project (and from half my fee) when the client insisted on launching a savage attack on a business partner he’d had a recent falling-out with. “Look,” I told him frankly, “you’re XX years old, a born-again Christian, and close to dying. Are you sure you want to be remembered as this vengeful person?” The book never came out, and he died shortly afterward.

Trust me, trust my storytelling. Some clients insist on playing up their virtues to the nth degree, to the point of overwhelming if not nauseating the reader with self-laudatory information. Others want me to accentuate the theatrics of an already dramatic situation. As a fictionist, I rely on the power of selectivity, suggestion, and understatement, and I know how to trigger the desired effect in readers. Trust me; I hardly ever brag, but this is what I’ve won prizes for. If you want a rah-rah publicist, there are many others you can hire for a lot less. Know when to stop, when to let go of the text, and when to say “That’s enough for one book. We can always write another one.”

Penman No. 155: Writing Virtual Reality

Penman for Monday, June 29, 2015

I WAS surprised to receive a text message the other week from a former student, Dada Felix, herself a prizewinning short story writer. Dada told me that she’d just heard from another acquaintance who was now working in Saudi Arabia, and who’d written her about the sandstorms in that country. “It was just as you described it in your novel Soledad’s Sister,” Dada said.

I thanked Dada for the compliment—and I took it as a compliment, because while a third of that novel takes place in Saudi Arabia, I’d never been to that country—not before I wrote the novel in the early 2000s, and not since. In fact, I had to look back at my manuscript—it’s funny how little you retain in your head of your own work after a few years, except perhaps for specific passages—to see what exactly I had written. I found this:

“Seven weeks after Soledad arrived, a sandstorm blew in from the east, a dark, mountainous reddish-brown cloud that rolled over the city with a great cavernous howl, obscuring and blistering everything in its path. She had just stepped back into the servants’ dormitory from giving Amina a bath, and all the girls were rushing to seal the doors and windows with towels. Still unused to the voluminous abaya, Soledad fought with herself to move as quickly as the others…. As the sandstorm blew around them, making the glass in the windows sing but striking terror in the hearts of the foreign maids and workers in the compound as it raked and scoured everything in its path, Meenakshi’s lightness of mood seemed even more out of place. When Soli cowered in a corner near her bunk, holding on to her knees, Meenakshi crept up to her and whispered, ‘He wants me to meet him tonight, in the harbor, near the fountain.’

“.… Around them the wind had miraculously fallen to a hush; the sandstorm had left as quickly as it had arrived, spending its force at the water’s edge, and people began reopening the windows cautiously to look up at the sky, which was still a murky brown but through which patches of blue were beginning to show.”

I remembered that I wrote in that scene to introduce some visual drama, and also to create a contrast between the fierceness of the storm and the almost casual decision the girls make that would change their lives forever.

But what looking back at my own text truly reminded me of was how often, in the course of writing fiction and even nonfiction, I had to recreate factual scenes based on research and my imagination. This will happen quite often to anyone dealing with historical material, or anything that happens outside his or her personal experience.

Research, of course, is invaluably helpful. When I wrote the biography of accounting pioneer Washington SyCip (who incidentally turns 94 tomorrow—happy birthday, Wash!), I chose to start the narrative at a crucial turning point in his youth, when he was returning to the Philippines in mid-1945 after serving as a codebreaker with the US Army, and his ship steamed in to Manila Bay. I had to ask myself, what would Wash have seen, standing on the deck of that ship? I consulted several sources to reconstruct the likely scene:

“In the city’s oldest section, within the stone walls of Intramuros, an entire procession of churches—the Manila Cathedral, Lourdes, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, San Ignacio—had crumbled to the ground; only San Agustin remained. Of the city’s many universities and colleges, only two colleges—Letran and Sta. Rosa—withstood the bombs and the artillery. The City Hall, the Post Office building, and the Metropolitan Theater were all vacant hulks, their bone-white shells pockmarked in thousands of places by sustained bombardment between February and March 1945.”

That kind of factual rendition isn’t too difficult to achieve, so I tried to get beyond the physical into something more internal—Wash had been told, mistakenly, that his father had been killed by the Japanese, and he was brimming with anxiety—so I followed up that description thus:

“The man on board the Navy ship was too far to see these details for himself, but the strange concavity of what had been the metropolitan skyline, the impression of a body supine and overrun by tubercular rot, and the brooding silence that waited across the bay would have encouraged his worst fears.”

Strangely enough, this was a scene—steaming into Manila Bay—that I had already rehearsed some 25 years earlier, in a novella titled Voyager, set in the 1880s, when a steamship arrives from Hong Kong, carrying a Spaniard who has just killed a compatriot on the voyage to protect a Filipino revolutionary. An officer of the law, he has seen the best and the worst in men—himself most of all—and projects this duality of vision onto the unfolding panorama before him, in the novella’s closing scene:

“And now, in an afternoon of dolphins and rainbows playing above the water, we return to the wide-open arms of Manila Bay, the home of Spain and the throne of God on this side of the earth, the ramparts of its forts rising proudly into the sky, and yet anchored to the earth by dungeons, tunnels, pipes hissing with the force of sewage seeking to be expelled. Below the great Cathedral are catacombs I have yet to visit. Across the street, in Fort Santiago, is a flight of steps that leads down to a room of solid stone, with a solitary window offering a view of the river through the iron; when the tide rises, both view and viewer go in a muddy froth. This is where and how the City holds the secrets that keep it alive, where God, I must believe, now and then deserts His pigeoned domes to visit.”

I had to imagine much of that, this being the time before computers and Google, and when I had scant time for and access to libraries, as a working stiff outside of academia. Years later I would read a contemporaneous account that pretty much validated what I had made up.

Do I always get it right? Heck, of course not. These forays into virtual reality are inherently risky—you’re guessing half the time, and all it takes is one small but noticeable mistake to ruin the seamlessness of the effect. There’s a long list out there of factual boo-boos poets and novelists have made—not that it matters much to their unsuspecting readers.

But not all readers can be so easily seduced by fluid prose. It took an Indonesian professor who had flown to and from Saudi Arabia to gently, almost apologetically, inform me that I had my time zones all wrong in my opening scene in Soledad’s Sister—the same work that Dada praised for what seemed to be its uncanny accuracy—that a plane flying eastward from Jeddah would have flown behind the daylight clock rather than ahead of it. I thanked her profusely, and made a note to correct that in future editions of the book.

(Image from alarabiya.net)