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)

Penman No. 153: Elderly Expressions

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Penman for Monday, June 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 113: The Discipline of Words

Penman for Monday, September 8, 2014

 

LET ME acknowledge, first of all, the readers who responded to last week’s column, “Exercises for the editorially minded,” where I shared some exercises that I give my class in Professional Writing to help rid my students of their wordiness and show them how to say the same thing in different ways. It was gratifying to see so many people coming out of the woodwork and professing an interest in the discipline of words. (For lack of space and to give that topic its due, I’ll save the responses to the exercises for next week.)

That’s what this business is all about, ultimately—discipline and practice, more than just loose talk, especially talking about writing. Some folks keep talking about writing all the time—about their plans for their novel or their epic poem—but they never get around to doing it. Sometimes writers—especially when they’ve had one too many drinks—have a tendency to run off at the mouth, or to pontificate endlessly on matters they know next to nothing about. I myself will gladly admit to these occasional displays of verbal excess, which are as inevitable as an old car coughing up a foulness of black smoke.

But when all the bluster is done and we retire to our fortresses of solitude, armed with a steaming cup of coffee (and, for incorrigible holdouts like my friends Krip Yuson and Jimmy Abad, a lighted cigarette), it all comes down to a date and a duel with the blinking cursor, and to the rules of engagement of writing, a code defined far more by discipline than by license, more by routine than romance. (See what I mean about running off at the mouth?) And what are those rules? To me, they all boil down to this: shut up and write.

Just recently, a friend asked how it was possible for me to be working on seven book projects all at once—a company history, the biographies of two political leaders and two business families, an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, and my third novel; these aside from my weekly column and the occasional short story and magazine article and blog entry.

I told him that I’m no genius or superman, but I do work as hard as I can, acutely aware of time passing, and of the need to tell stories (and to make a decent living from the telling) while I can. Some years ago I realized that life was too short to wait to finish one book before starting the next one. I felt inspired by something I had read about Isaac Asimov, who reputedly had a row of typewriters in one room, on each one of which a different project was afoot. Thankfully computers now make it possible to squeeze those typewriters into an iPhone (on which, not incidentally, I’m writing this column using the Notes app, while playing in a poker tournament). I also look up to the example and the work ethic of the late Nick Joaquin, whose prodigious beer drinking was matched by his copious writing. Not only was he superbly versatile, producing stories, novels, essays, poems, journalistic pieces, and commissioned biographies. He was also thoroughly professional, and no matter how much drinking or partying he did, he was known to submit his manuscript on the dot, on the appointed deadline.

We writers like to bitch about how little time we have to write what we really want to write—which for me is that novel or that story that keeps whining like some neglected waif in a corner of my mind. It’s true; real life has a way of crushing the good fiction out of you, and there are days I get up from my desk dazed after completing a book draft or grading my students’ papers and commenting on their work, dispirited by fatigue, and wishing I was working on one of my own stories instead. (I don’t forget for one minute that we gents have it easier than the ladies, who give up so much more of their life and liberty so we can pursue our happiness.) So what do I do? I stop kvetching about how unfair it is that some other guy can earn zillions more while I’m slaving away at a piece few will read and much less care about, consider myself lucky that I can work with my fingertips instead of my arms, think about my parents, and then I shut up and write.

Last week, in the midst of frantic preparations for a three-month stay in the US (where I’ll be by the time you read this), I put everything aside for a day and focused on finishing a short story I had promised to contribute to an Australian literary journal. This was a sad love story that I had begun in 1998 (I have unfinished stories in computer files going back to 1990, in a folder optimistically labeled “Ongoing”); like my characters, I lost my way in the plot, and recovered my bearings only when the Australians asked for a story and gave me a deadline.

My deadline was a Sunday; that Saturday morning I took a six-kilometer walk around the UP Oval and thought the story through; I was halfway in it, and approaching a critical turn in the plot. A line kept insinuating itself in my head: “the clarity of things,” begging to become the title. When I felt my characters beginning to speak on their own behalf without much prodding from their puppetmaster, I knew it was time to sit down and write. That afternoon until early the next morning, I wrote in a white heat, laying down over 2,500 words in what eventually became a 6,000-word story. (At this point in the tournament, I’ve just lost to someone’s pocket aces, but strangely I feel relieved, wanting instead to tell this story of a story.)

“The Clarity of Things” is the first long story I’ve finished in years, and whether or not the Australians take it, I’m happy to remind myself that I can still play with raw emotions and describe places I’ve never seen on the digital page. I enjoy the cool and calm precision of nonfiction, the seeming unimpeachability of fact; but it’s the terrific and also terrifying ambiguity of fiction that makes me want to be a writer all over again, to feel like one, and to work like one.

Penman No. 112: Exercises for the Editorially Minded

Penman for Monday, September 1, 2014

 

TO MY pleasant surprise, last week’s piece on what editors do drew a stream of positive responses—I never imagined that so many readers would find the thankless and dimly illuminated job of editing so fascinating—but my biggest surprise after the column came out was to realize that I’d already written not just one but two columns on editing, back in 2010. Thankfully, I didn’t repeat myself too much, and since I’ve already written dozens of pieces on, say, fiction and nonfiction, I don’t see why I can’t do a fourth one on editing, focusing this time on how an editor thinks or should think.

But before I go one step further into the trenches, let me just point out another important fact about the editor’s job. Particularly in a journalistic context, where some element of public interest is presumably involved (as opposed to literary publishing, which comes down to very personal tastes), “editing” involves much more than dotting I’s or finding better substitutes for problem words. Editing in journalism inevitably involves matters of policy—the publication’s policy in respect of the treatment of, say, political and social issues. What newspaper and magazine editors worry or should worry about are spelled out in a textbook titled Creative Editing by Bowles and Border (Wadsworth, 2000), which says, in a chapter on Situational Ethics:

“Copy editors are likely to be concerned with decisions involving the writing, editing and production processes: Is the use of profane language or obscene photographs ever justified? When? Are the implicit biases of the editor or the newspaper as a cultural institution evident in the selection of 
stories and photos? Should they be? Do certain people groups or institutions receive more play than others? Conversely, are some people groups or institutions ignored? Are headlines and captions fair and accurate? Are stories edited to eliminate bias and opinion? Are subjective words or words suggesting a viewpoint 
given thoughtful consideration?

“Managing editors and other senior editors are likely to be concerned with questions of policy: Should victims of crimes be identified? If so, when? In stories about rape? About incest? About battering? In stories involving juveniles? Should suspects in crimes be identified? If so, when? At their arrest? When they are charged? At the time
of trial? Should the cause of death be listed in obituaries involving victims of suicide or AIDS? Who in the newsroom should know the identity of confidential sources? Just the reporter? The supervising editor? The managing editor? The publisher? If a reporter pledges confidentiality to a source, are editors
bound by the same promise? How involved should newsroom employees be in writing and editing special sections that promote 
consumer products? How should corrections and clarifications be handled?”

Frankly, when I contemplate questions like these, I’m glad to be in the classroom rather than the newsroom, knowing how tricky these situations can get. It would seem that they should have clear and easy answers, but they rarely do, especially given the realities of Philippine publishing and politics—but that’s a story for another day.

Today, let’s do something more elementary—elementary enough to be among the very first exercises I give my students in CW198, Professional Writing. (I don’t care if my future students see this here, because they’ll still be hard put to cough up the answers. As all my students know, I always give open-book exams.) You might know if you have an editor lurking inside you if you can do these exercises reasonably well. Just for fun, I’ll respond to the first 10 responses emailed to me—if you don’t hear back from me, that means you were No. 11.

The first exercise has to do with the bane of Filipinos who love English too much, to the point of using 30 words where three will do, and of using a P1,000 word where a five-peso one will do. Cut. Simplify. Ruthlessly.

The second exercise is rather more advanced, and involves matters of judgment, nuance, and vocabulary—in other words, style. This is something that an editorial or opinion writer (which I was, way back when) would specialize in. I tell my students that they can express the same idea in three ways—nice, neutral, and nasty—depending on their specific purpose. I don’t mean for anyone to be nasty, of course, but just like learning karate or shooting, you never know when you might need it. Let’s have some fun!

I. Wordiness: Simplify and shorten the following sentences without changing their meaning.

  1. I managed to traverse the thoroughfare without jeopardizing my safety.
  2. The people of the Philippines have a great liking for festive occasions.
  3. Society as a whole, as well as the individual persons in it, should practice the virtue of honesty.
  4. In my personal opinion, it is my idea that a prohibition on pistols, revolvers and rifles should be implemented.
  5. His actuations produced a profound surprise in the very depths of me.
  6. We have insufficient information with regard to this state of events.
  7. Let us satisfy the requirements of our bodies for nourishment.
  8. The outbreak of hostilities was within the realm of possibility.
  9. I give you my permission to continue doing whatever it was you were doing.
  10. He was a uniformed enforcer of the law.

II. Modulation: Rewrite the following statements in the “nice-normal-nasty” modes, as required:

  1. (neutral) The Philippines is a country whose people are predominantly poor. (turn into nice and nasty)
  1. (nice) Heroic overseas workers contribute greatly to the health of the Philippine economy. (turn into neutral and nasty)
  1. (nasty) Your proposal is almost totally bereft of intelligence and originality, and is unacceptable in its present form. (turn into neutral and nice)