Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

SJackson

Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in?The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

american-gothic

My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF?my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Ba?os. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The?rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 242: A Husband’s Purpose

Dog

Penman for Monday, March 13, 2017

 

 

I’M NOT?a dog person—next to my wife Beng, my marmalade tomcat Chippy was my best friend for twelve years until he meowed goodbye in 2012—but when I saw the trailer for this new movie A Dog’s Purpose, I just knew that I had to take Beng out to see it.

Beng loves dogs; at any given time, she has six or seven of them running around the yard. Her favorite, Bunso, invariably greets her when we get out of the car with a yelp and raises his paws for a shake and head rub, maybe even a sloppy kiss. I cringe when I see that, especially the part where the pooch’s wet tongue flicks across a cheek I might be visiting myself. For Beng, it’s just one more proof that dogs are more faithful than men, never mind that we don’t have tails to wag to flaunt our extravagant affections.

Of course, Beng knows the names of all her dogs, and who sired whom three generations removed. To me, they’re all noisy little mongrels distinguished by the fact that some are white, some are brown, and some are black. As you can imagine, over the years, we’ve given away scores of puppies to neighbors and relatives who thankfully couldn’t see beyond the cuddly cuteness to where certain recessive genes assert themselves. I become vaguely aware that the litter (and I suspect that’s where the word’s other meaning came from) is gone when a deep and abiding silence descends upon the household, at least until the other dogs demand their share of the food budget.

I’m not sure where my indifference to dogs comes from. Discounting guppies in water bags and terminally ill mayas in bamboo cages, we didn’t have pets as children—my four smaller siblings were a handful enough for my mom—so that’s probably one reason. My one dog memory from childhood involves a barking bitch and her pup whom I met on the street; I was nine years old and summering in my provincial hometown, but even at nine I had begun to read a lot, and one of the things I read was “Barking dogs don’t bite.” Well, this one did, and I grew up to be a skeptic from that point on.

At the same time, and strangely enough, I was a big fan of Lassie, and became something of a pest in the eyes of our TV-owning neighbor, parking myself in front of their TV nearly every afternoon in anticipation of another episode of Lassie chasing down scumbags and finding her way home after straying 200 miles. So I knew dogs were smart, and maybe that’s where the problem was—there could be only one top dog in the house, and as far as I was concerned, that position was already taken.

But back to the movie. Beng and I see a lot of movies, usually after a foot massage and a panciteria dinner. It’s as predictable as Tuesday, but life’s like that when you edge past 60; you don’t want too many surprises messing up your week. At least I don’t; now and then Beng makes mewling sounds about trying out new dishes or even new restaurants, and to be gracious I’ll say, “Okay, since we’ve had the miki bihon in this place half a dozen times now, let’s see what it tastes like across the street!” This is how we’ve survived 43 years together—understanding, compromise, and a little generosity.

The G word was on my mind last week when I suggested that we watch the damned dog movie. Usually we subsist on some iteration of Fast & Furious—that’s how I get my kicks, by watching cars crash into concrete walls and skulls get smashed by sledgehammers (“Isn’t violence relaxing?” I ask Beng over the popcorn). Once in a while, typically when a new iPhone hits the market, I treat Beng to a movie without Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Vin Diesel in it. I scored big with La La Land; you know she had fun when she asks you to look for the soundtrack, which is what the house will sound like for the next week, over the woofs and the whimpers of our canine company.

Beng likes movies like Hidden Figures and Sunday Beauty Queen where strong, smart women are smiling as the closing credits roll, where good people go to heaven, and where frogs turn into princes (she’s still waiting for that to happen). Whether it’s a happy or a sappy ending, she’s likely to cry over something. (She was probably the only person on the planet who wept when the Soviet Soyuz rocket ship docked with the Space Station—“Isn’t world peace wonderful?” I remember her saying.)

So I knew she was going to weep buckets when I took her to the dog movie; for me, watching her watching the movie makes it all worthwhile. Now this is going to be a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that A Dog’s Purpose is all about canine reincarnation, and about finding your way home (which, again, is apparently on every presumptive Lassie’s script).

I lined up for our tickets—we usually get D15 and D16, about midway across the theater—but dozens of families had also come out for the mutt show, and now only V15 and V16 were available, way up in the balcony where all the young couples nested. When I showed Beng the tickets, she giggled and said, “Are we going to neck?” I mumbled some incoherent, noncommittal reply, suddenly feeling very frog-like. She thought it was a funny idea, and threatened to call our daughter Demi in California, to tell her that her parents were going to go necking in the moviehouse.

Thankfully the movie started, and soon enough, as one dog died after the other, Beng was pulling out her tissues and sniffling serially, and I touched her on the cheek to assuage her grief. I could’ve licked her right there, but I could imagine Demi going “Ewwwww!” I left it to Bunso to do the licking later—having, for that day, served my husbandly purpose.

 

Penman No. 241: The Long and Short of Summary

240_f_86352387_qpckndkcg4djurkk2t8g8niysulm2iejPenman for Monday, March 6, 2017

 

 

IN DEALING?with communications and reports drafted by my office staff and by my students, one problem I often encounter is the writer’s inability or reluctance to summarize needlessly long passages.

Some of that happens simply because the writer doesn’t know how to digest material, which further means that he or she can’t distinguish between the relative levels of importance of different statements. Another reason is sheer fear, especially in authoritarian or sensitive environments where messing with someone else’s text could land you in major trouble.

But we all need summaries, good ones, of everything out there. We simply don’t have the time to slog through every document that comes our way in this information-saturated age.

Good summarizing takes sharpness of mind and boldness of spirit. It means you know which parts you can cut without doing damage to the heart of the piece and that you can stitch the snippets together to form a new whole. You’d be surprised by the compelling clarity that shines through a properly summarized paper, by how much latent energy pulses in tautened prose.

I had an interesting conversation last year with a Filipino graduate student in Seoul. I was recalling the time more than 40 years ago when, as a junior writer-editor employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, I wondered why the current Five-Year Development Plan I was editing was as fat as a phone book, while the South Korean plan I had as a reference was no thicker than a Perry Mason paperback. And look, I told the student, where Korea had gone, minus the verbosity.

And then the student told me something that explained away the mystery of that anorexic document. In Korea, he said, managers and CEOs put a premium on brevity; the higher up the ladder your document went, the more condensed it was expected to be, to spare the bosses the chore of plowing through pages of data. Recommendations were to be brief and to the point.

It’s surprising because it seems so counterintuitive. For most of us, less is simply less and more is surely more. Our normal tendency is to add, to elaborate, to complicate until we can barely remember what our original thought was. We Pinoys especially have a tradition of rhetorical bombast that employs big words without meaning much, and we’ve mastered the art of filling dead air with, well, dead sounds.

This is why speakers in school programs (and the people who introduce them) take forever to say the most prosaic things; people walk up to the mike in the open forum and feel compelled to tell their life story before finally asking a question, if they do at all. We love to talk for the sake of talking, cluttering our prose with the same verbal indiscipline.

For me, a good summary begins, first of all, with the writer’s grasp of the main ideas running through the piece he or she is summarizing. This requires a thorough read-through of the original and an understanding of its basic argument. Without this sympathetic comprehension, attempts at trimming it down to size are bound to fail or to at least be misdirected. The best book reviewers are great at being able to reduce a thick volume to its thesis. That’s because they’re not just idle English majors like you and me, but are very likely experts in the field who may know more about the writers and their subjects than the writers themselves.

Since most of us aren’t such experts, the next best thing would be to take careful notes of what’s being said—identifying (and even physically highlighting) main points in the text and understanding why they’re being made. These points can then be paraphrased, condensed, and sequentially presented.

A good summary is also mindful and possibly reflective of the tone of the original—whether businesslike, contemplative, combative, or comic, for example. Nowhere should the summarizer’s own opinions or biases intrude, unless one is summarizing one’s own material.

This leads me to one of my pet peeves, the abuse of PowerPoint by speakers who don’t know the difference between a talk and an AV script. These are the people who will turn their whole speech into slides that are little more than blocks of text and unreadable graphs, and who will do little more than read everything that’s being flashed onscreen.

We might not mind this practice too much if these speakers were audibly engaging, knowing which phrases to emphasize or when to pause for dramatic effect. In many cases, however, this ritual is performed by zombie-like drones who seem to have no inkling that they actually have an audience behind them (behind, because they’re reading off the screen)—and an audience that can read as well as, if not faster than, them. PowerPoint presentations are meant to be verbal and visual summaries of whatever is being pitched.

There’s little excuse for a long paragraph to be splashed across the screen where a picture and four or five memorable words will do. That paragraph will be forgotten as soon as the slide vanishes, but the image will linger long afterwards.

Of course you’ll always lose a little something even in the best summary, but let’s put it this way: the best summaries will make the reader want to read the rest of the material, which is what you probably wanted to happen in the first place.

(Image from fotolia.com)