Penman No. 57: On Politics in Fiction

BaldwinPenman for Monday, July 29, 2013

I WAS in Hong Kong last weekend to talk to an international group of graduate writing students about a subject that, I proposed, we were all acutely aware of and very likely had done something in, but rarely dwelt on in creative writing class (although we do discuss it a lot in a reading or critical context): the relationship between literature and politics, or self and society. I’d put together a module that explored the way various authors from different environments have dealt with political subjects, primarily in fiction.

The selections I chose—15 short stories and three novels from all over—covered a range of specific issues from race to sexuality, and also a range of approaches and techniques. We discussed these examples, paying close attention to how the authors drew attention to their causes and concerns in an aesthetically satisfying and politically effective manner.

My students came from the UK, the US, India, New Zealand, and Singapore, and many lived in Hong Kong or mainland China. Therefore, they represented a broad range of social and political experiences, which also informed their responses to the fiction we took up. (We Pinoys—at least the older ones among us—are relatively immersed in political literature and discourse, given our history and our circumstances; whether as readers or writers, we can’t avoid Rizal, and why should we? Despite more recent forays into postmodernism, speculative fiction, and other fresher approaches, our fiction remains stolidly realist in the mainstream, compelled to account for the harrowing truths that drip from our headlines.)

We opened by discussing three stories that dealt with the thorny issue of race—thornier, of course, in some countries and societies than others. Race may not be as visible and as contentious a political factor with us Filipinos as it is in, say, Singapore or Malaysia, not to mention the US and the UK, if only because we have assimilated the Chinese, for example, so well into our bodies and body politic that it will be nigh impossible to mount anything anti-Chinese without cutting off our own noses. That doesn’t mean that we’re above or beyond racism, regionalism, and ethnic bias; this will raise some hackles, but I suspect that we Pinoys practice a benign racism in insisting that all our PBA imports should be black. It’s for this reason, among others, that I make sure I cover African-American material in my classes.

The three race-related stories that I chose were James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Six Feet of the Country,” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Baldwin and Walker dealt with the African-American experience, and Gordimer with apartheid in South Africa. (I wish I’d found a Chinese or Malaysian story dealing with race issues, and will do that the next time I do this module.)

Not only were the Baldwin, Gordimer, and Walker stories gut-wrenchingly powerful pieces of prose. They also represented different approaches to the same presumptive subject of the search for racial equality and self-realization, and this was what I wanted my students to see: how you could be so potently political, so committed to your cause, and yet also so level-headed and so composed that you never lose control of your material, or otherwise strangle it with heavy-handedness.

“Going to Meet the Man” was published in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights campaign in the US, and Baldwin—one of America’s most prominent black writers—could have written a typical story featuring a black character struggling against injustice and racial oppression at the hands of the white majority. All these elements are in the story, but James Baldwin does the daringly unexpected: for his narrator, he assumes the voice of Jesse, a white sheriff. The mild-mannered Jesse is a patronizing racist who can’t understand how blacks could be so upset with their lot that they would march in the open and disturb the peace, forcing him to take punitive action. Jesse also has a far more domestic problem: he can’t get it up for his wife, and the only way he can solve that is to pretend, strangely enough, that she’s black. But the story’s most horrifying moment comes from Jesse’s past, from his recollection of a childhood “picnic” that turns out to be the brutal lynching of a black man.

Nadine Gordimer’s story, first published in 1953—four decades before the formal abolition of apartheid in South Africa—is also told from the point of view of a white man, a landowner who albeit reluctantly takes up the cudgels for his black workers when the white authorities make a ghastly administrative mistake and return the wrong corpse for the man’s relatives to bury. (“There are so many black faces—surely one will do?”) The white protagonist here acts not out of politically enlightened outrage, but rather out of a deep annoyance with the bureaucracy, as if he himself had been personally offended. (And yes, before you ask, the tragicomic mix-up of bodies here would inspire my own Soledad’s Sister many years later.)

Alice Walker would gain fame for The Color Purple, a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters, but before that she wrote the story “Everyday Use,” which focuses on the home visit of a young, college-educated black woman to her poor mother and sister. Told from the mother’s point of view, the story shows how differently the educated and politically empowered daughter Dee now acts from those she left behind—she wants her mother to give her a precious quilt, a family heirloom, that she plans to use as a piece of décor, and can’t understand when her mother refuses to give it to her, since the quilt has been promised to her sister Maggie, who’ll be putting it to everyday use. Thus, no matter how much Dee may have gained in the city in political and cultural sophistication (she has even changed her name to “Wangero” in her own affirmation of black power), she has clearly lost touch with her own roots, no longer able to recognize the truly authentic and truly valuable.

What’s there to learn for writers from these three examples?

First, that good, sharp authors reject the obvious, and are willing to take risks with their material and their treatment. For his central character, Baldwin chose the antagonist, the one more difficult to portray with fidelity, if you’re on the other side; rather than demonize Jesse, Baldwin presents him with not a little sympathy, making him even more alarming. Rather than the victim, Gordimer chose to focus on the man in the middle, the individual caught in a moral dilemma; the man’s bravado is ultimately ineffectual, but his decision to act challenges the reader more likely to fence-sit in the same circumstances. Walker takes on the natural protagonist with her all-black cast, but also highlights the important differences between them, reminding us that “race” comprises individuals and great divergences of experience and belief.

Second, that they don’t come to easy conclusions, and allow for the complexity and even the complicity of their characters to come through. You don’t do characters and their readers a favor by creating flawless heroes and thoroughly hateful villains. Real life very often lies somewhere in between.

In other stories by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, and our own Merlinda Bobis, my students and I also saw how authors with very strong political messages to convey did so, more effectively, by employing restraint and ambiguity, rather than excess and unyielding certainty. In other words, the best writers trust the intelligence and the natural humanity of their readers to lead them to what is reasonable and just. If you want to write good political fiction, first create good art, and leave the sloganeering to the editorial writers.

(Photo from time.com)

Penman No. 56: Cheers for The Mango Bride

mango bride final cover copyPenman for Monday, July 22, 2013

IT ISN’T every day or even every year that a Filipino author gets published by Penguin Books—I can think of only Jose Rizal, Jose Garcia Villa, Jessica Hagedorn, and Miguel Syjuco, off the top of my head—so when Marivi Soliven told me a couple of years ago that her new novel The Mango Bride (New York: NAL Accent, 2013) had been picked up by a division of Penguin, I immediately sent her a congratulatory note. But I didn’t realize the extent of Marivi’s achievement until I received a copy of the published book and read the novel in a mad dash to the ending.

Again, that doesn’t happen to me very often; given my crushing workload, it usually takes me weeks and even months to finish a new book, which is why I habitually decline invitations to do book reviews, not wanting to keep the authors and publishers waiting interminably. But Marivi’s case was different, because I was reading the book not as a beetle-browed critic, but as a mentor and a friend; as it happened, Marivi—whose husband John Blanco teaches literature at the University of California in San Diego, where they’ve been living for many years now—was also my daughter Demi’s English teacher in UP, and since Demi herself moved to San Diego, we’ve all kept in pretty close touch.

All this chumminess and this moving around has a point, and it’s directly related to The Mango Bride, which deals with the powerful tides, both social and personal, that continue to deliver many thousands of our countrymen to America. It tracks two Filipino women—the to-the-manor-born Amparo Guerrero, who gets banished to Oakland following an unwanted pregnancy that threatens to bring shame and scandal on her family, and Beverly Obejas, a plucky girl who also ends up in Oakland following the well-traveled path of the mail-order bride.

There is, of course, more in common between these two women than meets the eye, and it will hardly be a spoiler to say that their trajectories will cross. The task of the novel’s plot is to bring these two seemingly very different characters together—Amparo is a carefree college coed, while the orphaned Beverly works as a waitress—and when they do, toward the novel’s explosive climax, the author completes a narrative coup, with both dramatic inevitability and irony.

But more than a story of individuals, The Mango Bride is also a story of Filipino families rich and poor, which is to say that it presents Philippine society as an unfolding telenovela—bitchy matrons, philandering patriarchs, wayward sons, gay go-betweens, suffering servants, and all. This is, unabashedly, the source of the novel’s power, its appreciation of life in its broad, harsh strokes.

But unlike a telenovela, Soliven’s masterful prose lends the novel a fineness of detail that extends the pleasure of reading beyond mere plot and character into language. Here’s how she presents Amparo’s first experience of sex (as novelists know, a sex scene is always one of the hardest things to do well, and do freshly): “If there was something Amparo learned that first night, it was that the rhythm of passion was deeply satisfying for its simple circularity. Mouths making pillows of opposing lips, the call and response of interlocking sighs, a passel of caresses, cascading one into the other as waves folding into sea foam. Afterward, they gathered the thin sheets about them and curled into each other, chin to chin, chest to breast, dozing twins in a cotton womb.”

There’s a brilliant scene where Amparo tries to tell her boyfriend Mateo that he’s gotten her pregnant, but an elephant—literally—strides into the picture, having escaped from a circus and running red lights all the way down EDSA. It’s unexpected pay-offs like this that keep lifting the novel above the pedestrian, that remind us of an important literary talent at work, one with an unfailing feel for her material, whether we’re in Forbes Park or North Cemetery or a grocery in Oakland.

There will, I expect, be some complaining over the coincidences that mark the plot, but even here the improbable seems fated, precisely because of the novel’s implicit message: that we are closer to each other than we think, and might do well to acknowledge and accept that closeness while we can.

Marivi says that she began the novel in 2008 in the frenzy of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—November, to most people) and completed it two years later. It won the Grand Prize for the Novel in the 2011 Palancas, but was extensively revised by Marivi for international publication.

If you want to buy the book and see if you can share my enthusiasm, it’s available at National Bookstore. But here’s the best part: if you want to meet Marivi herself and get her to sign your copy for you, she’ll be in town very soon for a series of readings and talks, thanks to NBS, which is sponsoring her visit.

She’ll be spending an afternoon with us in UP Diliman on Wednesday, August 7, from 2:30 to 4 pm at CM Recto Hall. The UP Institute of Creative Writing and the Department of English and Comparative Literature will co-sponsor the event, which is open to all. See you there!

SPEAKING OF new books, I was happy to have attended the recent launch of a rather unusual book—unusual because it’s a bilingual Spanish-English edition—titled La Oveja de Nathan (Nathan’s Sheep), by the late novelist Antonio M. Abad. Translated into English by Lourdes Castrillo Brillantes (a professor of Spanish at UP, and the lovely wife of our friend and literary kuya Greg Brillantes), the novel won the Premio Zobel in 1928, and was being published for the first time.

The Premio Zobel was initiated by the pioneering businessman Enrique Zobel de Ayala in 1920 to preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of Spanish in the Philippines in the face of what Nick Joaquin would have called unbridled sajonismo. The Philippines and Filipinos had imbibed English like it was God’s own drink, and bold measures had to be taken to ensure the survival of Spanish in the new American age. Over the next many decades, the Premio Zobel did just that, and more, granting recognition to the best literary works written by Filipinos in Spanish, as well as the most valuable cultural contributions made by Filipinos to the cause of hispanidad.

Abad’s novel was one of the earliest winners of the prize (which Prof. Brillantes herself would later win), and its present publication by the Premio Zobel Collection, the Filipinas Heritage Library, and Georgina Padilla y Zobel (Enrique’s granddaughter) could not be more timely, as it deals with Filipinos caught between powerful political forces.

I’d have to admit that Sra. Georgina’s thoughtfulness in sending over an invitation to my house, with my name and address hand-lettered with a fountain pen, was what convinced me to drive across town in rush-hour traffic to catch the launch. Of course, the late author’s son, the poet Jimmy Abad, is also a dear friend, and Jimmy’s moving poetic tribute to his father’s legacy (delivered, in customary Jimmy Abad fashion, straight from memory) was well worth the excursion.

Penman No. 55: A Foray into Fantasy

TresePenman for Monday, July 15, 2013

WE HAD an interesting discussion in my graduate Fiction Workshop class the other week about fantasy. ?I’d asked my students to do an exercise—a short piece of fiction with which they could introduce themselves and their work to the rest of the class at the start of the semester—and one of them had chosen to do fantasy. It was a very well written piece, to be sure, about a child who meets an elfin spirit in a tree in their backyard, but I wanted to push the limits of our appreciation of fantasy, if we were going there at all, so I didn’t let it go at that, and raised a few questions and possibilities.

As my students and readers know, I’m a hardcore realist myself in my own fiction, operating on the notion that there are enough mysteries and wonders to be found and explored in everyday life to have to invent more. That doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t appreciate fantasy, or science fiction, which I’ve enjoyed since grade school. Like most readers, I like to be transported to other worlds and other possibilities, as a relief—or, let’s face it, an escape—from the tedium of the here and now.

That said, there are fantasies and there are fantasies, and just because a story’s a fantasy doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that the rules of credibility and plausibility can be thrown out the window. I suspect that readers of fantasy can be just as discerning and demanding as readers of realist fare; they may even be so familiar with the genre and its conventions that they will be ultrasensitive to any radical departure, good or bad, and will feel grievously shortchanged if their expectations aren’t met. Freshness of treatment and insight is key. Fantasy stories that just repeat what’s been said and done before will fail to excite the reader, who’s always demanding something new and different.

So what, to my mind, is a superior fantasy? I’m going to give an answer that will sound a little strange: it’s fantasy that’s premised on the familiar, but takes off into parts unknown, if only again to reflect back on the familiar, or what we thought we knew. In other words, fantasy is ultimately not about complete detachment from reality, but rather the defamiliarization of reality. I’m sure that more sophisticated theorists out there have made pretty much the same point (theory isn’t my strong suit, and I’d much rather reason my way through a problem), but it’s really quite simple: by taking a step back from reality and looking at it from a distance, we notice fresh things about that we would have missed up close. Fantasy provides that distance, even a certain distortion that emphasizes some previously obscure aspects of a picture or a situation over others.

Like I said, I haven’t written much fantasy—the most fanciful story I wrote, back in 1978 (when our daughter Demi was four, thinking that she would read and appreciate it when she turned 12) was a pseudo-historical tale titled “The Mirror,” set in pre-Hispanic Philippines, about the arrival of the first mirror to our shores. I had fun doing that, so I can see how liberating this kind of exercise can be for writers who feel stifled by having to deal with what’s right before them. Reality can be claustrophobic, especially when it’s dark and narrow, as it often seems to be.

But if I were to write fantasy again—and this was what I advised my young student to do—I would play with the possibility of taking off from somewhere unexpected, some place or some point that doesn’t have the word “fantasy” twinkling above it in stardusted letters.

I’m fascinated, for example, by what would happen if our authors tried to fuse freewheeling fantasy with grungy realism, employing our most familiar and even our most sordid realities as a launching pad for a journey to the surreal and the irreal. Of course, like most things in art and literature, this has been done before by many fantasists and fabulists. As I suggested earlier, the best way to lie is to begin with the seeming truth, instead of a flagrant falsehood. (One great example of this approach is the graphic story contributed by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo to our Manila Noir book—which had a very successful launch at NBS Glorietta last July 6, by the way—which begins with a series of gruesome murders on the MRT and turns into a supernatural detective story.)

The imperative of this fusion is at its most urgent in our society, ridden as it is with poverty, violence, and corruption, and yet also uplifted and ennobled by the Filipino’s deep spirituality and by our unyielding imagination. I proposed to my students that in a society such as ours, even fantasy has a social function: not necessarily as an escape, but as a means with which—even briefly—to distance ourselves from our pains and to look at them without hurting too much, so we could deal with them better upon our inevitable return. For us, the most ambitious and the most meaningful fantasy will take our stark social realities into account: you can’t set great fantasy in Tagaytay Highlands, because living there is already a fantasy for most Filipinos; you’d be jumping off a very low platform if you did that.

I?threw this impromptu suggestion into the discussion: instead of locating the encounter with the duende or the benign spirit in a backyard that already seems magical (nature—trees, waterfalls, caves, and such—is very often used as an entry point to the other world), why not set it somewhere you least expect a duende to appear (a place “most hostile to romance,” as Joyce put it in “Araby”)?

Think, for example, of a suburban bank branch full of people, toward closing time. A father, a mother, and their young daughter are there, because the dad needs to withdraw some cash to make a down payment on a second-hand car they’d been saving up for. The mom chats with the girl and fixes her ribbons while the dad does his business at the counter. It’s a pleasant day, and soft music plays in the background. Suddenly masked men barge into the bank and announce a holdup. A robber scoops up the dad’s money, but he begins to say something, and gunshots fill the air. (At this point, we don’t know yet if the father has been shot, or if the guards have opened fire.) The little girl is in utter terror, shaking in the iron grip of her screaming mother. At this point, the duende appears, suspending time, and maybe even the trajectories of bullets.

Unlikely? Of course. Corny? Could be. But it’s certainly less predictable than a leafy bower, or a cloud on a hilltop.

Again, I’m a hardcore realist, but I’d be the last to say that our people don’t need fantasy. We most certainly do, especially our poorest children, who’ve been battered and savaged by the realities of life, working in the streets or in some sweatshop when they should be in school, reading books and singing songs. They need fantasy to reclaim their sense of wonder, to see beyond the rust and grime and filth of their surroundings; they can be sustained and delivered not so much by fairy godmothers as by their imagination, which always offers hope.

 

FROM MY friend Jane Camens, the busybody behind the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWriters), comes this message about a call for submissions to an international anthology of flash fiction—the term in vogue for very short stories (also called “short shorts” or “sudden fiction”). Flash Fiction International, to be published by W.W. Norton of New York, is seeking stories from anywhere in the world—especially the Asia Pacific. Jane says that “the stories should be under 750 words, in English translation or original English. Previously published work (within the last 10 years or so) is preferred. But new manuscripts are also considered. Submissions may be sent by email with attachment to Robert Shapard at his email rshapard@hawaii.edu?. The submissions deadline is August 15. Submission limit is three stories.” Be so advised!

(Trese image from tumblr.com)

 

Penman No. 54: Calling All Filipino Writers

APWTPenman for Monday, July 8, 2013

I’LL BEGIN with a sheepish apology (and a word of thanks) this week, for a stupid mistake I made in my piece about hats a couple of weeks ago. I was in the car on my way to a meeting in Makati last Wednesday when I realized to my great horror that I’d written something very wrong, and resolved to fix the problem in the blog version of my column at www.www.dashufa.cn, but of course, before I could do that, an alert reader named “Nestie U” caught the error and pointed it out to me. I’d written that “felt” meant “mashed leather pulp,” but it’s certainly not—it’s wool, not leather. It probably won’t mean much to most people, but if we self-proclaimed wordmeisters don’t get finicky about words and what they mean exactly, then who else is going to care? Many thanks again, Nestie, for reminding me of what a confused and forgetful fellow I could be, sometimes.

 

THIS IS going to be a week of announcements, not because I’m too lazy to write a properly thought-out column—you know how I can go on and on about my pet causes and peeves—but because my involvement in certain literary organizations and concerns gives me access to news and information that (given the usual space limitations) might not even make it to the literary or culture section of most newspapers. (Here in the STAR, of course, we do our best to keep you abreast of the most important and interesting goings-on in the cultural front.) So let’s get on with the literary news—these just in!

For writers, the first and most vital announcement I have to make is a call for all alumni of writers’ workshops sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to take part in a tracer study being conducted by the National Committee on Literary Arts, on which I sit as a member.

Most people don’t know this, but the NCCA—the government’s funding agency for cultural programs—has been supporting most if not all of the country’s major writing workshops for almost 20 years now. Without the NCCA’s substantial support, these workshops would have been forced to shut down a long time ago, or would never have become as highly developed as they are now. The workshops enable young writers to meet both their peers and their seniors, examine and affirm the writers’ talent, and initiate them into a community that can help sustain their productivity for life.

The UP workshop, for example, has been held every year for almost half a century, and while we now take only 12 fellows a year, we used to have more, so if you average everything at about 20 fellows per batch, we would have produced almost 1,000 alumni fellows since the beginning. Add to these the fellows who’ve gone to the Silliman, Iligan, Iyas (La Salle Bacolod), and other NCCA-supported workshops in the regions.

Like any other government agency, the NCCA has to be publicly accountable for how it spends the people’s money, so we at the NCLA thought of initiating a tracer study to see exactly how these workshops have helped our writers in their careers—say, in terms of books written and published and awards won for their work, among other criteria.

We’ve asked Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega of MSU-IIT to be the project leader for the first phase of this project, and Christine and her team have formulated a set of questions that we’d like all workshop alumni from 1994 to 2010 to respond to. If you’ve attended and benefited from one of these workshops, please click on the link following and fill out the form.? http://www.msuiit.edu.ph/ research-extension/ncca/ tracer.php. Your response will go a long way to help sustain government support for the development of Philippine literature, as well as create a very helpful database and virtual network of all workshop alumni.

The second item on this week’s literary agenda is another call, this time for papers to submit to the “Reaching the World 2013” conference, scheduled for October 3-6, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. Spearheaded by the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association, the conference is co-sponsored by Chulalongkorn University, the SEAWrite Award, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Among many other Filipino writers, I’m one of the founding members of APWriters (www.apwriters.org), which has become one of the most active and viable organizations of writers and academics in the region. Last year, a formidable contingent of Filipino writers attended this conference, also in Bangkok, and our participation there left a very positive impression on the organizers and our fellow delegates, so much so that this year, I’ve been asked to head the Academic Committee that will receive proposals for papers and presentations.

Bangkok has been named by UNESCO as the World Book Capital for 2013, which is why we’re returning there (aside from the fact that Bangkok and Thailand are worthy of visiting for food, fabulous sights, fantastic shopping, foot massages, and other pleasures anytime, given any reason or excuse). Its famed Oriental Hotel has also hosted the annual SEAWrite Award, honoring the region’s best writers. (That’s a session from last year’s conference in the pic above.)

“Reaching the World 2013” will bring together authors, literary translators, scholars, teachers of Creative Writing, publishing professionals, and others from Asia and beyond. This three-day international conference with workshops and a free public day will enable writers, readers, scholars, students, publishing industry professionals and interested members of the public to network and share their work.

APWriters is a fairly open and friendly organization, and you just have to be a writer, a translator, a teacher, or have an interest in either writing or translation to sign up. Even in the academic area of the organization and the conference, we try to remain accessible, preferring discussions on topics of broad application to obscure and highly specialized ones that only a very few can understand and appreciate.

This year, for the conference, we are inviting papers and presentations on the following subthemes: Teaching Creative Writing; Literary Translations; Cultural Identity; Food in Literature; Music/Art in Literature; Online Writing; Young Writers; Literary Fiction; Creative Nonfiction (including biography and memoir); Poetry; Genre Fiction; and other related topics. Our main focus, however, will be the teaching of writing.

To offer a presentation or longer paper with a focus on teaching and practice of creative writing, email me, Jose (“Butch”) Dalisay, Chair of AP Writers’ Academic Committee, at jdalisay@mac.com. Deadline: August 10.

To offer a presentation or longer paper on literary translation, email Eliza Vitri Handayani, Chair of AP Writers’ Translation Committee, evhandayani@gmail.com. Deadline: August 10.

If you’re teaching Creative Writing at a university which offers this discipline and would like to offer a half-day or full-day workshop, send a paragraph describing the workshop you’d like to offer along with a brief bio to AP Writers’ Board Member Xu Xi at?xu.xi@cityu.edu.hk.

If you would like to read your poetry or discuss your creative writing on the panels at the public forum on Sunday, October 6, in the Bangkok Arts & Culture Centre, or if you want to launch a new book at “Reaching the World 2013,” email Jane Camens at admin@apwriters.com.

I’ve reminded the early birds who’ve already emailed me to express their interest in presenting a paper that they will have to produce a ten-minute-maximum version of their paper (and that time will include setting up PowerPoint, should they need it). I’ve noticed that here in Asia, we tend to be too respectful of each other in terms of extending time limits, which many paper presenters routinely ignore, droning on and on without compunction. Well, I’m going to pull the plug on any such miscreant (I think it’s a gross discourtesy to the next speaker and to the audience itself to speak beyond one’s allotted time), so please practice your presentation with an alarm clock before leaving home.

There’ll be a small conference fee (last year it was only USD$50 per participant) and we have no travel funding whatsoever to offer anyone, including ourselves, so save up and book a budget fare early, and see you in Bangkok in October!

 

Penman No. 53: Manila, femme fatale

Manila-NoirPenman for Monday, July 1, 2013

FIRST OF all, I’d like to invite my readers to the launch this coming Saturday of a unique and exciting new book, a collection of stories to which I made a modest contribution. The book’s title is Manila Noir, and it contains 14 stories written mainly by Manila-based authors, with each story focused on a specific district of the metropolis (mine, not surprisingly, was Diliman).

Edited by the accomplished Jessica Hagedorn, whose own Dogeaters made waves in international publishing in 1990, Manila Noir is the latest book in a long series published by Akashic Press—a series that includes books set in places as diverse as Chicago, Copenhagen, and Delhi. This local version (reprinted by Anvil Publishing) features pieces from Gina Apostol, Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo, F.H. Batacan, Jose Dalisay Jr., Lourd de Veyra, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, Angelo Lacuesta, R. Zamora Linmark, Rosario Cruz-Lucero, Sabina Murray, Jonas Vitman, Marianne Villanueva, and Lysley Tenorio.

Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about the book: “While certain cities in past Akashic volumes might appear to lack an obvious noir element, Manila (like Mexico City, which shares many of the same problems) practically defines it, as shown by the 14 selections in this excellent anthology. As Hagedorn points out in her insightful introduction, Manila is a city burdened with a violent and painful past, with a long heritage of foreign occupation. The specters of WWII (during which the city suffered from U.S. saturation bombing), and the oppressive 20-year reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos live on in recent memory. The Filipino take on noir includes a liberal dose of the gothic and supernatural, with disappearance and loss being constants.”

As the French word for “black” suggests, noir is a mode of storytelling that dwells on the dark side of human nature, with crime as a central element or a specter hovering above the story.

In her introduction, Hagedorn herself notes that “I think of Manila as the ultimate femme fatale. Complicated and mysterious, with a tainted, painful past. She’s been invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the US, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and American forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945. Yet somehow, and with no thanks to the corrupt politicians, the crime syndicates, and the indifferent rich who rule the roost, Manila bounces back. The people’s ability to endure, adapt, and forgive never ceases to amaze.”

And this book, I guarantee you, will not fail to amaze. Join us—Jessica and my co-authors—for a round of brief readings, a Q&A, and a book signing session from 4 to 6 pm, July 6, at National Book Store Glorietta 1 in Makati. See you there!

 

IT WAS with deep sadness that I received, by text message, the news of the sudden passing of one of my dearest friends, Luverne Gueco. Luverne was also a brother in the profession, having served as foreign news editor at the Inquirer for many years. But more important to me than that, he was my kumpare, my confidante, and my partner in crime 30 years ago, when we were all in our mid-20s and romping through life like young men do. Luverne and I were part of a rather remarkable stable of writers and artists in the Economic Information Staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, a group recruited and supported by our visionary boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat.

It was a group that included former newsmen Jun Medina, Wilson Bailon, and Efren Cabrera; the now-Canada-based poet Patty Rivera; writers Fidel Rillo, Lilia Santiago, Jess Santiago, Reuel Aguila, Eric Caruncho, Joey Papa, and Minnie Quemuel; the future lawyer and now Undersecretary Rey Cruz; and let’s not forget a pretty artist named Beng, who worked with fellow artists Anna Nolasco and Herick Ventura. Not surprisingly, our immediate supervisor was himself an artist, the tenor Frankie Aseniero.

Although we were working under martial law, the NEDA then felt like a kind of Camelot, and we were all grateful for the little haven that Dr. Sicat created for long-haired, irreverent types like us (another officemate, albeit in another division, was the renowned playwright and another dear friend, the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega). As an ex-detainee, I failed my security clearance check, but Dr. Sicat took it upon himself to cover for me and sent me to the Development Economics program in UP to cool off for a year.

Luverne was in the thick of all this, one of the most dependable writers in the group. He had also been with the Left, and the stories he shared about what he had gone through seared themselves into my memory, so much so that I used the most painful one—about a rebel who took it upon himself to execute his wife after discovering she was an enemy spy—in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (1992).

After hours, our friendship developed in countless pool halls, beerhouses, and girlie bars (we were certainly no saints). We played pusoy, darts, and billiards with wild abandon. Luverne was a gifted pool player—this was the dawning of the age of the Pinoy pool champion, when Amang Parica was still king and young bucks like Bata Reyes and Django Bustamante were still hungry for glory. (I, on the other hand, was what the pros derisively called a “tama-bola,” a guy who could barely hit the target with the cue ball, let alone pocket it.) When Luverne married his wife Judith and became a dad, I became godfather to his son Elias. Luverne was always a motorcycle kind of guy, and had his share of bad spills, but when he went out looking for his first car, I convinced him to get the same car I already had—a VW Beetle.

Perhaps fittingly, Luverne collapsed while doing what he loved doing most—playing pool. I’m not sure if it was a stroke or a heart attack, but the end came swiftly. He was only 62.

I’m devoting all this space to the passing of someone who lived the quiet, uneventful life of a desk editor not just to mourn the loss of a friend, but also of the kind of friendship forged in the real world. Ironically, I didn’t see much of Luverne after NEDA—these past 30 years—and our last meeting was about a year ago, but there was never a moment during those decades when I wouldn’t have listed him among my six closest friends, people whom I could count on to help me in a bind, no questions asked, and to whom I would throw the same lifeline. How many people have earned your trust and affection like that?

I’m not on Facebook—one of the country’s last holdouts—for one stubborn reason: I can’t accept the Facebook definition of “friend.” To be my friend, we should have broken bread and maybe a few precious other things together; we should have rejoiced and despaired together; we should have found each other’s weakest spots, but let them be; we should have disagreed on many things, but agreed on more. On Facebook, “friendship” is a convenience, just as easily disposed of with a mouse click to “unfriend.” I’d much rather wait five years to talk to someone like Luverne and pick up where we left off as if those five years had been just yesterday.