Penman No. 154: Teaching English to Filipinos

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Penman for Monday, June 22, 2015

I HAD?a great time last week with the English faculty of New Era University in Quezon City, who had invited me to speak at their three-day workshop on “Enhancing English Teaching Practices.” For three days, I met with a very lively group of about 30 to 40 college and high school teachers of English, talking about writing, reading, and teaching the language in today’s Filipino classroom.

I was backstopped in these discussions by the young and very sharp Ms. Cyndriel “CY” Meimban, who had taken her high school at New Era before doing an English degree with us at the University of the Philippines and then a master’s in Education at Arizona State U. CY—who also just happens to be the daughter of an old friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Dr. Adriel Meimban—took a break from her teaching duties at Northern Arizona University to help out her fellow teachers at NEU.

It was my first visit to the NEU campus near Commonwealth Avenue, which was rather ironic because we’ve lived on the UP campus just across that avenue for the past ten years. The NEU is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo complex and is run by the church, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s open to all faiths. There’s a substantial Muslim population in that very area, for example, and many students from that community attend New Era.

We held our workshop in the new Professional Schools building, which housed NEU’s colleges of Law and Medicine, among others; more prominently, along Commonwealth Avenue, the College of Evangelical Ministry which Dr. Meimban (a former president of NEU) now heads trains young INC ministers, including about a hundred students from overseas—Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Europeans, among many others; I was surprised to be addressed by a young black man from South Africa in perfect Filipino. I was, in other words, in a very rich cultural and linguistic environment, in which language is used not just to express oneself or get jobs but to propagate the faith.

Otherwise, the workshop attendees voiced the same problems I’ve heard elsewhere: a clear decline in English proficiency not just among students but teachers as well; the lack of new materials in the syllabi, particularly in literature classes, as well as teaching guides for these materials; and the persistence of outdated approaches to the reading and teaching of literature and of English itself.

I began my presentation with something I always emphasize when I teach English in UP, especially in my American Literature class: we study and teach English not because we want to be Americans, British, or some other Anglophone people, but to become better Filipinos. We learn English and study other literatures in English to gain insights into and understand how these other societies operate and how certain human values and truths transcend national and social boundaries. Thereby, we should lose our unfamiliarity with and our awe of the foreign, empowering ourselves as citizens of the world.

I did a module on creative writing—focusing on fiction and nonfiction—as a way of showing teachers how writers think and work, so they can themselves become writers or at least understand what writers do and how they do it. In reading and teaching literature, I went over several poems and stories, and asked my audience to draw up a list of questions that could or should be raised about the text beyond “What’s the moral lesson?”

I emphasized the importance of considering and discussing form and technique as much as content and meaning as a way of seeing how language works, on the level of the sentence or even the word. I argued for the enjoyment of language for its own sake—in effect, for the study of literature as an exercise in pleasure as much as in education.

The problem with too many literature classes is that they’re taught as anything but literature—as philosophy, as religion, as politics—rather than as the imaginative play on words that lies at the heart of literature. When teachers march into class and declare, “Class, this is what this poem means, and believe me because I’m the absolute authority on it,” students and even teachers miss out on the fun of discovery, of teasing out sense from seeming chaos.

Inevitably, the question of a “language policy” came up. Would students benefit from the imposition of an “English-only” policy? Was it all right (or was it criminal) for a teacher of English to resort to Filipino when teaching English, or literature in English?

I went out on a limb here—and I’m sure that what I’ll say here will turn many a reader livid with consternation and disgust—but I said that, even as a former chair of the UP English Department, I’ve always been opposed to an English-only policy, because it’s silly and it simply doesn’t work.

We study English—and try to master it—because it serves us well in communication and in business, especially in a global sense, but to deliberately throttle our use of other languages (of which we have an enormous wealth) in the notion that it will somehow make us better users and speakers of English is downright stupid. I’ve yet to meet someone who now speaks and writes perfect English by having paid 5 centavos for every Filipino word he or she used. Most writers of my generation are happily bilingual or even trilingual, and we don’t get our languages or linguistic registers mixed up; what’s key is appropriateness—which language and which register is best for which occasion?

I would even argue that code-switching from English to Filipino can work in the teaching of English, and especially of literature in English, if it relaxes the non-Anglophone student and allows him or her to speak—and even to make a mistake, which should also be encouraged (and gently corrected) without too heavy a penalty. Patience and understanding, rather than force and sheer authority, have always gotten me better results in the classroom. I hope my colleagues in New Era University got a taste of that treatment, and that they enjoyed the experience.

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. 152: Writing the Stories of Your Life

Studio5

Penman for Monday, June 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasures

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

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

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

Penman No. 151: A Workshop in Biography


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Penman for Monday, June 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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