Penman No. 288: From Quiapo to Norwich

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Penman for Monday, January 29, 2018

 

IT’S A strange title, I know, but it’s all I could come up with to highlight the two topics I’m taking up this week. They’re not actually connected—at least not yet—but they were much on my mind as I dusted off my texts for a new semester of teaching at UP (all for naught, as it turned out, as my graduate writing class was dissolved for lack of students—to my secret relief).

“Quiapo” is at the core of Quiapography, a digital-humanities project designed and led last semester by Dr. Patricia May Jurilla. Normally our resident expert on the history of books and publishing—one of those rare nerds who shares my strange attraction to Gothic blackletter and to the aroma of centuries-old paper—May branched out not only into a new subject but also a new approach to teaching and learning under the rubric of “digital humanities.”

Or maybe not that new. I asked Dr. Jurilla to explain the concept to me, and I was told that “Digital humanities has been in practice for over twenty years now. It’s emerged as a discipline itself with its own league of practitioners, dedicated book series and journals, circuit of conferences and events, degree programs, and new job opportunities in the tight academic market.”

Better than any explanation is the product itself of her PhD students’ semester, during which May directed them in a digital exploration and presentation of that most quintessentially Pinoy of urban spaces, Quiapo. That can be seen on the Quiapographywebsite at https://updigitalhumanities.wixsite.com/quiapography, “a virtual museum designed to document and map the culture of Quiapo in order to celebrate, re-view, and rediscover its heritage and its importance in Philippine history and society.”

Aside from the familiar photographs of and stories about Quiapo Church, amulet vendors, and the Black Nazarene, the site contains useful resources such as a list of literary works about Quiapo, pieces on the district’s fortune tellers, camera shops, and historical heritage, and photo galleries of just about everything.

Myself, I wish that I’d known about the project earlier, as I would’ve had my own Quiapo stories to contribute, as central as the place was to my young life—from my memories of descending for the first time into its brand-new underpass (something straight out of a sci-fi fantasy to a ten-year-old) to marching at Plaza Miranda with fist raised as a teenage Maoist and buying Christmas ham on Echague as a family man.

For those who’ve never strayed into this crucible of Filipino-ness (and sadly, in today’s mall-oriented culture, that would be millions of Pinoy millennials), Quiapographyshould provide a perfect introduction.

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And now a quick cut to Norwich, some 10,600 kilometers away from Quiapo in southeastern England. For nine months between 1999 and 2000, this city became home for me and Beng when I took up residency there as the David T. K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia. It was a restful but also fruitful stay that led to what became my second novel, Soledad’s Sister.

To put it simply, UEA is the most vibrant center of creative writing in the UK. Its community of writers was founded by Sir Angus Wilson and Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970, and its graduates have included the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Rose Tremain. (Among the privileges of being there was having books signed by future Nobel prizewinners J. M. Coetzee and Ishiguro.)

Every year, UEA invites a writer to stay and write there—no teaching, no research, no lectures, just writing and relaxation—at its expense, or rather that of a sponsor named David T. K. Wong. A former journalist, civil servant, and businessman from Hong Kong who also writes fiction, Mr. Wong did well enough in life to endow the generous fellowship, an award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about Asia.

I was the second Wong Fellow, and over the 20 years since the fellowship’s inception in 1998, two other Filipinos have followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy in 2003, and the current fellow, the Davao-born but US-based Nathan Go.

This brings me to my pitch: if you think you have a great novel or collection of stories welling in you—and you’d like to finish it in England, looking out on a lagoon full of graceful swans—please apply for the next Wong Fellowship, like I dared to do two decades ago. All you basically need, aside from the forms and the £10 application fee, is a 2,500-word excerpt from your proposed fiction project. The deadline for applications is February 28. For forms and more information, go here:https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship. Good luck!

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think.?And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 286: Bringing Science to the People

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Penman for Monday, January 15, 2018

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JUST BEFORE the Christmas break, I had a chance to speak to three different groups—the local media in Iloilo, the Philippine Genome Center in UP, and the Philippine Information Agency—about popularizing technical information, of the kind produced by academic and government institutions, especially in their research.

This has been one of my lifelong advocacies, being a frustrated scientist who, as a PSHS graduate, traded Industrial Engineering for English at UP. I figured that the next best thing I could do for science was to help scientists let people know about their work, given that, as I often point out, we lack a scientific culture—a rationalist mindset—in this country.

I told them that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Bringing science into the national discourse becomes even more important when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

That’s why we have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also enabling destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation. In other words, it’s a guide to making choices.

A few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Ba?os tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from the scientific community, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now?

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in this country. Some may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the activists, the bankers, and the generals, or should we rely on science to establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

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(Photos from http://www.up.edu.ph)

Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces.?I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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