Penman No. 172: Going Against the Grain

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Penman for Monday, October 26, 2015

I WAS?asked to give the first keynote last week at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators at the University of the Philippines, on the conference theme of “against the grain,” and here’s part of what I said:

The Filipino writer is among the freest in the world as far as self-expression is concerned; but the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013.

Creative writing won’t pay you much, but you can say whatever you want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a dangerous enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

…. We have one of the region’s richest concentrations of writers, and very likely the region’s most strongly developed systems for the development of new writers; but these writers have precious few readers.

We have never lacked for writers, and likely never will. The Filipino writing community is very much alive, producing new work not only in English but in Filipino and in many regional languages.

Within the region, we can claim to have the oldest, the longest-running, and possibly the most comprehensive writing programs—not just writers’ workshops which go back 50 years, but also degree programs from the BA to the PhD in several major universities. The Palanca Awards, which are handed out every year to the best work in many categories and several languages, have been running now for 65 straight years.

New young writers will find it easier to break out and get noticed by their peers and seniors here than in many other places, because, while Filipinos respect their elders, and everyone above 40 is a “Sir” or a “Ma’am,” we do not have the kind of master-apprentice, or senior-junior relationship that exists elsewhere. You do not need a senior’s validation or sponsorship to advance; indeed you might move forward much faster by slaying a literary father or two.

But for all the literary talent we think we have, it can be argued that creative writers really don’t matter much in Philippine politics today—certainly not as much they used to—because, to be hyperbolic about it, no one reads, no one buys books, and no one understands nor cares what we’re doing.

It’s a sad fact that in a country of 100 million people, with a literacy rate of about 97%, a first printing for a new novel or book of stories will likely run to no more 1,000 copies—which will take about a year to sell, and earn the author a maximum of about P50,000 (about US$1,000) for a few years’ work—good enough for a new iPhone. There’s no such thing as a professional novelist or playwright in the Philippines, which makes it easier for writers of any worth to be sidetracked or co-opted by the government or by industry.

It’s ironic that Philippine literature’s political edge should be blunted not by timidity nor by censorship but by sheer market forces. The simplest reason many Filipinos don’t buy books has to be poverty, with the price of an average paperback being higher than the minimum daily wage.

But perhaps we writers ourselves are also to blame, for distancing ourselves from the mainstream of popular discourse. Politics is nothing if not the domain of the popular, and the very fact that many of us write in English is already the most distancing of these mechanisms. The question of language has always been a heavily political issue in multilingual Philippines, where some regionalists still resent the choice of Tagalog as the basis of the new national language Filipino in 1935, and where English is reacquiring its prominence not only as the lingua franca and the language of the elite but as our economic ticket to the burgeoning global call-center industry.

Political change in the Philippines has historically been led by the middle and upper classes, from the Revolution against Spain of 1896 to the anti-Marcos struggle of the 1970s and the 1980s to the Edsa uprisings of 1986 and 2001. Therefore, one might argue that English is, in fact, the language of reform and revolt in the Philippines in modern times.

But it is this same English-literate middle class—our potential readership—that is the strongest bastion of neocolonialism in the Philippines, blindly infatuated with Hollywood, hip-hop, and Harry Potter, keen on trading the local for the global, opportunistic in its outlook and largely unmindful of the social volcano on the slopes of which it has built its bungalows. As I often remind my fellow Filipino writers, our rivals on the bookshelves are not each other, but J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, Paulo Coelho, and Tom Clancy.

When I return to the two main points I raised—that we are free to speak and to write, but only in politically inconsequential forms; and that we have writers aplenty, but very few readers—I have little choice but to conclude that the main culprit is our self-marginalization through English, and the academicized, Western-oriented mindset the language encourages.

The interesting upside of this unfortunate situation is that—largely untethered from the considerations of commerce and politics—our writers have been free to write their hearts and minds out, producing poetry and fiction of a high quality that, in a double irony, might yet break through to the global market.

The triple irony would be that it sometimes takes the international spotlight for local readers to take notice of native genius. It sounds like wishful thinking, but by being here today, and connecting our literature to yours, we might do enough together to push our literatures to the forefront of our peoples’ consciousness.

But let’s face it: the margins are familiar if not comfortable territory to many of us, not only here but wherever we live and write, as they give us a clearer view of the center. Going against the grain is very much in the grain of how and why we work. And if you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t be here today.

Penman No. 171: All Systems Go for APWT 2015

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Penman for Monday, October 19, 2015

IT’S “ALL?systems go” for this year’s edition of the annual Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, which will be held in Manila later this week, from Thursday on to the weekend. As a member of the APWT Board and one of APWT 2015’s convenors, I’m particularly thrilled for the Philippines to be hosting this event, which is the literary equivalent of the APEC, the SEA Games, and let’s throw in The Amazing Race, which it could be a bit of for our foreign guests.

It’s not a competition, of course, and we won’t be signing any treaties or squabbling over territory. In fact, the way we’ve set things up, it’ll be a politician-free zone, which isn’t to say that politics will be off the menu. With topics ranging from “Sex and Sensitivities” and “Criminal Intent” to “Love in the Time of Dissonance” and “Why Publishers Prefer Outsiders,” there’ll be fireworks aplenty in the panel discussions we’ve put together for the three-day conference, which will be held at the Institute of Physics in UP Diliman on Thursday and Friday, before moving to De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas on Saturday.

I’ll be one of four keynote speakers for the conference, and will speak on the conference theme, “Against the Grain,” at UP on Thursday morning, to introduce the Philippines and our culture and literature to the audience, especially our visitors. I’ll be followed the next day by Romesh Gunesekera, the UK-based, Sri Lanka-born Booker Prize finalist who partly grew up in Manila, where his father had worked for the Asian Development Bank. At La Salle on Saturday, the indigenous Australian author Philip McLaren will keynote the meeting, and Jing Hidalgo will close the conference at UST with a talk on the “subversive memory” of women writers.

These 30-minute keynotes will be the exception, however. It’s an APWT hallmark to keep presentations short (no more than 10 minutes max) and informal (no footnoted academic papers on obscure topics, please—and no PowerPoint!). The key phrase here is “writers in conversation,” so we expect easy, freewheeling discussions around the topics given to each panel, with lots of time for audience interaction.

We’re expecting at least 50 foreign participants to join around 100 local authors in APWT 2015. Filipinos have always been well represented at APWT. Its annual meetings had been previously held in Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Perth, and Singapore, and this will be the first time it will be coming to Manila. Next year, we’re planning to hold it in Guangzhou, China.

If you want to meet with fellow writers, translators, publishers, and agents beyond our shores, you can’t do better than to sign up with APWT, a ten-year-old organization that has become the most active and visible network for writers and translators in the region. The great thing about APWT is that it was designed by and for practicing writers above all; while we have many academics, critics, and scholars among our members, theory isn’t our big thing, but practice—engagement with reading publics, dealing with shifting markets, connecting across the globe, adapting to new media, rolling with the political punches. If you’ve written what you think is a terrific novel and want to catch an agent’s or a publisher’s attention, APWT is the place to go.

Speaking of which, this year’s conference will offer six workshops that writers—both budding and accomplished ones—can sign up for, to sharpen their skills or explore new possibilities. You don’t have to attend the full conference to attend these workshops, which will be run by a sterling crew of international authors. Robin Hemley—who used to teach nonfiction at Iowa and now heads the Yale-NUS program in Singapore—will be handling one on “The Art of Memoir Writing”; Xu Xi, who directs the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, will teach fiction writing “with Asian characteristics”; the New Yorker Tim Tomlinson, another frequent Manila visitor, will share “Pitching Tips from the New York Writers Workshop” to help you sell your manuscript, at the same time that poet and editor Ravi Shankar will be teaching his students how to create “timeless verse”; at La Salle, Sally Breen will hold a master class in editing, to address “What Editors Want”; and simultaneously, Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin will employ improvisational techniques to engage participants in “Essaying Manila.”

I strongly urge those inclined among my readers to go out for one or two of these three-hour-long workshops, because you may never get the chance again to study directly with these masters, some of whom have become good friends of mine over the years and whose teaching and writing excellence I can swear to. There’s a fee to pay, but it will be well worth it, and you’ll remember the lessons you’ve learned long after you’ve forgotten how much they cost. Slots are limited, so sign up early. If you can’t pay in US dollars online, you can pay for the conference and/or the workshops at the door, in pesos (at a slightly higher rate of 50-to-1, to cover conversion and remittance charges).

Filipino citizens can attend the full three-day conference at a reduced fee of $40 or P2,000 (for students with IDs of UP, DLSU, and UST, the fee will be just P1,000); the workshops will each cost $40 or P2,000. These fees will include some meals and snacks provided by our generous sponsors and hosts, who include—aside from the three aforementioned universities—the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the British Council, Anvil Publishing, and the Japan Foundation.

For more information and for links to the registration page (again, you can also register and pay at the door), see here: http://apwriters.org/apwt-2015-manila.

See you at the panels!

Penman No. 170: History Made Personal

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Penman for Monday, October 12, 2015

THE RECENT?upsurge of interest in our history occasioned by runaway success of the film “Heneral Luna” is certainly welcome. While the film and its propositions may have sparked a flurry of debates among netizens about what really happened more than a hundred years ago, the important thing—as I noted in one of those “Heneral Luna” threads online—is that we’re having this discussion at all, when not too long ago, very few people cared.

(One of the most salient comments I came across was posted by a viewer who mused that—for all our newfound admiration for the hothead general’s bravery and principled stand—had we lived in Gen. Luna’s time, or were those circumstances transposed to the present—most of us middle-class Pinoys would probably side with the general’s more pragmatic enemies, arguing business to be more important than anything else. That’s a sobering thought, especially these days when many people seem to think of “nationalism” as being too old-fashioned if not downright irrelevant in this age of globalization, conveniently forgetting that globalization benefits some nations and economies more than others.)

There have been many times when I’ve wished that I’d become a historian instead of a literary person, so I could have looked into our past more deeply and more seriously to make better sense of our present. Indeed, when I returned to the University of the Philippines as a freshman after a ten-year hiatus in 1981, I chose between declaring myself as an English or a History major (I had entered UP in 1970 as a prospective industrial engineer).

Were it not for the need to take the easier path to make up for lost time, I would have chosen History in a flash, as interested as I was in stories of “what happened.” In grade school and high school, I read more books dealing with history, biography, geography, and science than fiction; to this day, when people ask me what single book has influenced me the most, I don’t think twice about answering The Forest by William Pomeroy, a lyrical account of an American’s travails as a Huk guerrilla, which I read in high school and encouraged me to become an activist.

Mine was a generation of students who grew up on the enlightened revisionism of Teodoro Agoncillo, Hernando Abaya, and Renato Constantino. I use the word “revisionism” because the standard historical texts at that time were written by such men as Gregorio F. Zaide, a mimeographed and paperbound copy of whose book—my mother’s college textbook, for sure—was as fascinating to me as a boy as any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian chronicles. In grade school in the early ‘60s, I had yet to become aware of the important qualifications and nuances to be made to telling the story of our past, such as the fact that histories unavoidably took sides, and that it was all too easy to be seduced into taking the wrong one.

These days, I content myself with writing commissioned biographies and institutional histories—which, while they pose their own literary and scholarly challenges, do not by any means qualify me as a historian. I remain ever aware that the true study of history involves an appreciation of the grand sweep of things as much as the little details, and I have to admit that it’s the details I’m more often fascinated by, leaving it to larger minds to scope out the overarching logic or the grand design of the human narrative.

As a hopeless dabbler, hoarder, and kibitzer, I find myself irresistibly drawn to old objects and obscure information, and trade these gilded items with such fellow enthusiasts as my Washington-based friend Erwin Tiongson and his wife Titchie, who together run the Philippines on the Potomac website at popdc.wordpress.com. Erwin and Titchie were in Manila not too long ago for a vacation and a couple of lectures before the Philippine Studies Association and at the Ateneo, Erwin’s alma mater, on their most recent research into the colorful life in Washington of the remarkable Sofia de Veyra (you can read Titchie’s wonderful article on her here: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-thoroughly-modern-sofia-de-veyra). My wife Beng and I had a chance to meet over lunch with the Tiongsons and with Sofia’s granddaughter Teresa “Binggay” Montilla and her aunt Rita Damian, and the look on Binggay’s face when the Tiongsons showed her pictures of her grandparents she had never seen before was priceless.

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Shortly afterwards, back in the US, Erwin wrote me to say that he had been able to track down an article in the May 20, 1921 issue of the Great Falls Tribune (published in Great Falls, Montana), about the protest launched by Fiipino Chinese businessmen, led by the banker Dr. Albino Z. Sycip, against a new bookkeeping law that apparently discriminated against Chinese merchants. Sycip had taken his case to the US courts, and was on his way to Washington to plead his case there. While he was in the States, on June 30, a son was born to his wife back home, a detail I recounted in a biography I wrote of the man who was that baby boy: “Albino decided to commemorate that visit by naming his new son ‘Washington.’ ‘Up to now Wash has semi-annual recurring bad dreams about what might have happened if the old man had been in Tallahassee or Vladivostok,’ the impish Alex [Wash’s brother] would write.” Erwin relayed the news item to Wash, who gratefully wrote Erwin back to say that he had never seen that article before (and another one reporting on his father’s victory in court).

More recently, Erwin and I have been exchanging clippings we’ve dig up on another outstanding Filipino, a Jesuit icon, the late Fr. Teddy Arvisu, and I’ll write up those findings one of these days (“His father wanted him to marry one of the Quezon girls,” Erwin tells me). I’d found an eloquent and impassioned speech against the rise of fascism by the young Teddy, published in a November 1940 issue of the Philippine Collegian; Teddy would become a soldier and join the Death March before achieving his dream of priesthood. At the moment, Erwin’s hot on the trail of Peyton March, the American officer who went after Gregorio del Pilar at Tirad Pass, and who lived in his last years in Washington. You better hurry, I told Erwin, as they’ll be making a “Goyong” movie soon.

Nothing of the kind of trivia that Erwin or I come across will change the big story of our past, but as avid amateurs, I’m sure we’re happy enough to help in making history more personal.

[Top image from the US Library of Congress]

Penman No. 169: I Saw Them Standing There (Almost)

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Penman for Monday, October 5, 2015

I WAS?playing Texas Hold ‘Em with a bunch of younger guys a couple of weeks ago in my favorite poker joint and one of them was delivering a spirited rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Nothing on You” (yes, this old fogey knows the singer and the song)—probably to disguise a pair of Kings—and the table talk came around to our preferences in music.

“I can tell where this is going,” I thought. But then they call me “Daddy Butch” in the place—everyone above 50 is a “daddy” or a “mommy,” which is better than the monikers some other regulars sport, such as “Itlog,” “Daga,” “Paos,” and “Payat”—so my age wasn’t the issue. The young ‘uns were really interested in knowing what kind of music my generation listened to, so after everyone else had spoken in praise of pop, hip-hop, grunge, and metal, I yielded the one and only answer any soul born in 1954 can truthfully produce: “The Beatles.”

Some nodded, smiling, and then our dealer—a sweet girl in her mid- to late 20s—shuffled the cards and said, “Were they really big?”

I have to say, I almost lost it at that point.

I pride myself at the table on my poker face, a point my adversaries readily concede—“You can never tell what hand Daddy Butch is holding!”, I’d often hear. But that fearsome inscrutability more likely comes from the fact that, at the freewheeling 10-20 cash game, I’ll bet on anything from a pocket pair of Jacks to a 7-deuce off-suit. In others words, I’m what they call a “loose and aggressive player,” possibly mad, possibly idiotic, possibly serious. I lose a lot of money playing this way (I behave much better in tournaments) but it’s worth the sight of my tablemates guessing and squirming.

But again, I almost lost that carefully crafted coolness when I heard (with better emphasis) “Were THE BEATLES really big???” It was worse, to me, than those schoolkids who asked why Mabini was chairbound throughout that whole “Heneral Luna” movie. I felt a vile sourness welling up from my gut and bubbling out of my ears and nostrils. You might forget the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and I won’t even bother you with trivia like the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Military Bases Agreement, but THE BEATLES????? (Let’s add a couple more question marks for real emphasis.)

I was too apoplectic to answer, but eventually someone on my left, a forty-something fellow who just might have been old enough to be rocked to sleep to the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” said “Yes, they were big.”

“Bigger than Nirvana?” someone else chimed in.

“Yes, bigger than Nirvana.”

“Bigger than One Direction?”

“Yes, bigger than One Direction.”

“Bigger than Michael Jackson?”

“Well, maybe MJ came closest to the Beatles in popularity.”

“Actually, they even claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ,” I finally said, “and depending on the number of Muslims and Buddhists in the world at that time, it just might have been true.”

“Really, they said that? When?

“In 1966—just before they came to the Philippines.”

“They CAME to the Philippines?”

“Sure—they had a big concert here on July 4, 1966—and I ALMOST saw them!” The bile had snuck down my throat now, and I was feeling much better, given a rapt audience for one of my favorite stories.

With full relish, I recounted how the Fab Four flew into Manila, were met by screaming, fishnet-stockinged girls, offended Bongbong Marcos, and were practically chased out of the old MIA by Liberace fans who clearly believed that—at least in the Philippines—the Beatles couldn’t possibly be bigger than the Marcoses.

Somewhere in there I interjected the story of how my mother had promised a 12-year-old named Butch that they were going to see the Beatles at the Rizal Coliseum. The indulgent mother and her eager son get as far as Quiapo Boulevard from their humble abode in Pasig, whereupon she sees a new moviehouse trumpeting the wonders of Cinerama. “Let’s watch this movie instead!” the lady says, and the boy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing John, Paul, George, and Ringo standing on the stage—albeit from 1,674 feet away in the bleachers—vanish into the gutter. That afternoon, as luckier fans swoon to “Please, Please Me” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” tank fire and bazookas echo in the boy’s ears, all throughout the two hours of “The Battle of the Bulge.”

My poker playmates look at me with wide-eyed wonder—I try to read their faces, like a a poker player ought to be be able to do—but I can’t tell if they can’t believe that I’m that old, or if they’re just awed to be sitting at the same table with someone who actually breathed the same jeepney-flavored air in the same politician-infested city as the lads from Liverpool.

They got nothing on you, Beatles!

Picture-'Britain's Finest' Beatles tribute band

AND IF?these memories make you feel like suiting up in your collarless jackets and zippered boots and swaying to “Eight Days a Week,” you’ll get a chance to relive the Beatles experience when one of Britain’s finest Beatles tribute bands—called, well, Britain’s Finest—come to Manila for a concert on October 14, Wednesday, at the tent of the Midas Hotel and Casino on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

You can get your tickets (P3,800 for the VIP and P2,800 for the gold section at all SM Tickets (470-222) and TicketWorld (891-9999) outlets or via www.ticketworld.com.ph.

I’m planning to go, but I think I’ll leave my mom at home this time.