Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay?as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes?from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude?mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

I WAS in Chicago two weeks ago to keynote the 17thBiennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), and it was an opportunity not only to catch up with old friends from my time as a graduate student in the American Midwest but also, and more importantly, to have a sense of where the study of Filipino-American history is going.

With 33 chapters now spanning the US from Hawaii to the East Coast, FANHS has become one of the most visible and important Fil-Am organizations (we typically still hyphenate the term but many Filipino Americans no longer do), devoted to recovering, preserving, and promoting the history of Filipinos and their descendants all over that vast country.

It’s a history that dates back to at least October 1587, when the Nuestra Se?ora de Buena Esperanza?dropped anchor off what’s now known as Morro Bay, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On its crew were several?luzones indios; today they would simply be called Filipinos. Some men went onshore, and one Filipino was killed by Indians.

Since then, over three million Filipinos have either made that journey, or were born in America to Filipino parents, and in each one of them is inscribed a history of struggle, adaptation, acceptance, resistance, and all degrees of complex responses in between. And as the Filipino population in America has expanded, so have Filipino communities, such as that seminal one that was started by runaway Filipino sailors in New Orleans in the 1760s, which grew into a “Manila Village” that was sadly wiped out by a hurricane in 1915.

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I’d first heard about the Lousiana Pinoys from Jim and Isabel Kenny who produced a fascinating documentary about them in 1992 titled “Dancing the Shrimp” (a reference to the way Filipinos dried shrimp—and grew the shrimp industry—in Louisiana by stepping or dancing on them to music). In Chicago, I was happy to meet Marina Estrella Espina, a pioneering researcher, librarian, and author whose 1988 book Filipinos in Louisiana?(New Orleans: AF LaBorde & Sons, 1988) laid much of the groundwork for further studies as the Kennys’ and that of younger scholars like the poet Randy Gonzales, who also grew up in New Orleans but lived for many years in Dubai. Now in her 80s, Marina excited the audience by announcing that she had found proof that Filipinos had settled in Louisiana even earlier than previously thought, and that she was working on a book chronicling Filipino journeys around the world.

From Alameda, California and local historian and Boholano Bob Balandra came the story of the Bohol Circle, a club formed there in 1936 by 16 Filipino immigrants seeking and providing support for each other in a difficult time. Some later joined the 2ndFilipino Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific. Bob and his compatriots are trying to get that historic club and its clubhouse recognized with an official street name.

Elsewhere, the 300 participants in the FAHNS conference spoke on and listened to such topics as community-university partnerships in Alaska; Filipina-American marriages in the Philippine-American War; getting out the Fil-Am vote; the sakadas?of Hawaii; Filipino nurses in Illinois; and decolonization and visual art. Film screenings by the noted filmmaker Nick Deocampo and the “Dreamland” team of Claire Miranda, Katrin Escay, and Moshe Ladanga complemented the lectures. Dr. Dorothy Cordova, one of the society’s founders along with her late husband Fred, graced the event. I was particularly glad to meet old friends from the University of Michigan, Dr. Romy Aquino and his wife Necie, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Princess Emraida Kiram, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

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A special feature was the unveiling of a mural depicting the Louisiana experience, produced by the Durian Collective composed of artists Leonard Aguinaldo, Darby Alcoseba, Manny Garibay, Jun Impas, Otto Neri, Orley Ypon, and Art Zamora, who were assisted by Fil-Am cultural advocate Almi Astudillo-Gilles.

Over more than 30 years, FAHNS has become a true community of shared personal, academic, and cultural interests, and has the potential to become a formidable force in American politics, especially at a time when immigration and human rights have become threatened once again by the new regime. But as with many communities, unity of vision and purpose is always a challenge, which was why this year’s conference focused on the theme of “Community for Cohesion and Collaboration.”

In my keynote, I suggested that “The only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

“Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of ‘a common stake’ an increasingly nebulous one.

“If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.”

And so the conference went, looking back into our past for a glimpse of the future.

Penman No. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things?in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli?and Fili?are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili?I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli?from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell?and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli?retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines?(Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.

 

Penman No. 310: Tacloban’s Worthier Wonders

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Penman for Monday, July 9, 2018

 

ONE OF the pleasures of our recent visit to Tacloban was meeting up with two friends—the cultural scholar and UP Tacloban Humanities Division head Joycie Dorado Alegre, and the poet and Professor Emeritus Merlie M. Alunan. Beng and I made sure to spend an extra day in Leyte to see the UP Health Sciences campus in Palo, the fabulous Palo Cathedral, and other landmarks close to Tacloban. We’d already visited the Sto. Ni?o (ie, the Marcos) Shrine and the next-door Public Library—both of them in a rather sorry state, as I reported last week. But going around town with longtime locals like Joycie and Merlie revealed worthier wonders.

We made sure to visit other tourist staples such as the Macarthur Landing Memorial Park in Palo—an impressive work by the late sculptor Anastacio Caedo, better known for his plaster busts of a pensive Jose Rizal, one of which I keep in my home office as a kind of conscience. (Though no blushing fan of the famously vainglorious general, I’d been intrigued enough by MacArthur’s Philippine connections to visit his museum and tomb in Norfolk, Virginia.) I tried hard to recreate the tableau of ships massing on Leyte Gulf, only to have my musings spoiled by a tourist and his girlfriend wading into the pool in mock fatigues and rubber boots, posing with fake firearms.

But this was tragedy on a diminutive note compared to what no one visiting Tacloban can escape—the howling hell that was supertyphoon Yolanda and the many thousands of deaths it left in its wake. As we passed one traffic island after another—with the grass almost strangely manicured and impeccably garbage-free—Joycie or Merlie would tell us, “Those islands became mass graves. There are people buried there.”

A more formal and movingly expressive memorial to the lost lay farther on in Tanauan, in artist Kublai Millan’s sculpture built on yet another mass grave. Everywhere we drove on that coastal plain, the surging sea had swept people and whole families away, and while the city seemed to have regained its equanimity and was bravely soldiering on five years after, there was a hole in its heart still aching to be filled.

Merlie herself had gone through a recent personal tragedy, with the sudden passing of her beloved son Ebeb. Even as Yolanda had spared her, living as she did on higher ground, she couldn’t have foreseen this dark turn down the road. (She had lost her father and five other family members in the Ormoc City flood of 1991.) She was still clearly grieving, but had gone out of her way to entertain us, and perhaps thereby also entertain herself.

Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of family, but Merlie was threading a way forward, in that way uniquely accessible to artists. Every true work of art is an affirmation of life, and in Merlie’s case, she has art aplenty to affirm life with. To begin with, there’s nothing literally closer to life than food, and for almost two decades now, Merlie and her enterprising children have built up one of Tacloban’s best-loved restaurant chains, headlined by the now-iconic Ayo Café along Ninoy Aquino Avenue.

Ayo (the name derives from the Visayan term for “good”) serves food as familiar as Spanish sardines, lumpia, roast chicken, and burgers at prices that won’t make you weep, but with a twist—the twist being that it’s cooked and presented just scrumptiously right, with the choicest ingredients, in servings large enough for take-home leftovers. I’d heard about Ayo before from friends who’d been there (Merlie proudly keeps a guest book signed by writers and artists), and while I may have initially accepted her invitation out of friendship, I’ll be seeking it out on my own on my next Tacloban sortie (and I insisted on paying for our merienda?to emphasize my patronage).

The Ayo interlude also allowed us to discover another of Merlie’s less-known talents as a visual artist who paints and also does plant sculptures. I asked her to pose for a picture beside one of her works, and learned that this was something she had been doing since her years in Dumaguete, perhaps again as a refuge or respite of sorts from the travails of daily life.

Of course it’s her poetry that Merlie Alunan is best appreciated for (one of her poems, “Young Man in a Jeepney,” has been a perennial on my syllabus), and her sixth poetry collection, Running with Ghosts?(Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017) is understandably heavy with waterborne death. But as she points out at the close of her title poem, life will go on, in all its bewildering indifference:

Grass sow their seeds over the turned earth,

The graves are greening in the seasonal rain.

Everyday we run with ghosts by our side.

God is silent. as ever blameless and inscrutable.

Penman No. 309: A Breakthrough in Tacloban

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Penman for Monday, July 2, 2018

 

 

LATE JUNE is graduation season under the new academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, and since the UP System is made up of eight constituent universities spread out over 17 campuses, that’s a lot of graduations to attend for officials like me. Since the President can’t possibly be at all the ceremonies—which are sometimes scheduled on the same day, or just a day apart—we VPs decide early on where we want to go to represent the System administration.

Diliman is a given, being basically home. I also attend the rites of UP Manila, partly because I’m fascinated by the number and variety of degrees we hand out under the health sciences (culminating this year in the combined MD/PhD—a physician who’s also a researcher, the very top of the heap). But also, UP Manila—harking back to an earlier tradition—still requires its graduates to wear togas instead of the now-ubiquitous sablay?or sash, which means I get to drag my US-university toga, or what I call my clown costume, out of the mothballs.

Last year I chose to go to UP Baguio, only to realize, the night before the ceremony, that not only was I on the roster of visitors, but was also the commencement speaker—a little detail that no one had remembered to tell me. A faster commencement speech was never written. (I’ll admit it—I was thrilled to get the job done.)

This June, I selected UP Tacloban—not yet a constituent university but a college under the supervision of UP Visayas. I picked Tacloban because I hadn’t been there for at least 15 years since the early 2000s, and I wanted to see how the campus and the city had recovered from Yolanda’s devastation. I imagined that It was still scarred by the catastrophe five years after; instead, as soon as we landed, I was impressed by how quickly the place had gotten back on its feet, abuzz with tricycles and new construction.

With a morning to spare, I walked about town with Beng (who had come along at her own expense to see old friends) and toured the still-sequestered Sto. Ni?o Shrine (always more a shrine to the Marcoses), badly ravaged by the storm and by neglect. An even sorrier sight was the adjacent People’s Center and Public Library, which had been converted to a Japanese surplus store. I don’t bemoan the humbling of excess, but as Beng reminded me, “This was the people’s money.”

One happy discovery I did not expect was Tacloban as a food paradise. Wherever we went and at whatever price point—the surf and turf combo and the grilled marlin at the hotel, the fish tinola, the grilled scallops, and bulalo?at the Acacia restaurant, more tinola?and nilagang?carabeef at the unli-rice Pinutos at the mall, and the lemongrass roasted chicken at the now-iconic Ayo restaurant—the food was fresh and flavorful, the beef amazingly tender and the tinola?divinely laced with lemongrass and ginger.

All that fortified us for the graduation, which was fairly small as UP graduations go, with just about 200 graduates, two of them finishing magna cum laude, from such fields as Accountancy, Management, Communication Arts, Biology, Computer Science, and Political Science. Tacloban Dean Dr. Dodong Sabalo, a management expert, introduced me to the commencement speaker, Ms. Debbie D. Namalata, San Miguel Brewery’s National Sales Manager and Vice President for Sales, and a UPV alumna, who gave a stirring talk about how her family overcame poverty to achieve professional success against all odds. It was a theme echoed by the valedictorian, Kim Decolongon Limosnero, whose mother had sold chicharon?to put him and his siblings through school.

You’d think that I would get bored going to these graduations and witnessing the endless parade of young people coming up the stage in their Sunday best with their parents in tow, but I honestly never do, especially when I listen to such stories as Debbie’s and Kim’s, and see fathers wearing denims and sneakers not because they want to look hip but because it’s the best outfit they can afford. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kim addressed his widowed mother—who had never finished college—as “my summa cum laude,” and I recalled my own parents who had similarly labored mightily to send all five of us to school.

And as I sat onstage, I received the saddest message on my phone, about another UP student named Jemima Faye Dangase, who was supposed to graduate cum laude?in Agribusiness Economics from UP Mindanao. The daughter of very poor parents—her diabetic father was a municipal utility worker and her mother was unemployed—Jemima was clearly her family’s hope. She submitted all her requirements for graduation, went home, then crumbled in pain—pain she had borne quietly for months without complaint, apparently so as not to trouble her already beleaguered parents. She was brought to the hospital, where doctors discovered her organs ravished by cancer; and there she died.

I know it borders on melodrama, but this is, truly, the story of Philippine education and why it’s so crucial to social transformation. For every Jemima who stumbles on the very last steps, there must be a Kim who breaks through. This is why going to such places as Tacloban revives my faith in the Filipino future, despite the dark travails of the present, in this moral equivalent of a Yolanda, which—reposing our faith in a God wiser than all despots—we will survive.