Penman No. 329: Focus on the Intangible

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Penman for Monday, November 26, 2018

 

THIS TOOK place last month, but it can’t be too late to congratulate the University of the Philippine Visayas for organizing and hosting the 2ndInternational Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Iloilo City last October 25-26. This gathering brought together participants from all over the country and from around the world to focus on an aspect of our cultural, social, and even economic life that we literally don’t see—our intangible heritage, meaning our beliefs, customs, and practices that form a deep spiritual and intellectual resource that we should be tapping into, but have neglected in favor of Facebook and such other attractions of this digital age.

One paper, for example, by Sashah B. Dioso of the Center for West Visayan Studies of UP Visayas, dealt with the role of indigenous beliefs in resource conservation and sustainability in Pandan, Antique. The paper cites how an old man was walking home one day when it suddenly rained. He then “cut two banana leaves to serve as umbrellas for both of them. The latter was heard speaking to the banana that he needed the leaves for them not to get wet and then thanking the plant including ‘kon sin-o man ang rugyan’ or whoever was there (referring to the taglugar). In that situation, the value given to a plant and the respect accorded to the taglugar?were evident.

In general, the indigenous beliefs discussed contribute to the communities’ collective sense of protecting their environment and helping sustain natural resources. The practices mentioned share a common characteristic which is to use natural resources and the environment sustainably. Failure to observe due care in using natural resources may earn the ire of the spirits dwelling in the environment. The?taglugar, considered guardians of the environment, are portrayed by these beliefs as active protectors of the environment that constantly watch and give the due punishment to transgressors (while also giving) rewards to people who use natural resources in a manner that is acceptable to the spirits (in terms of) a good catch and bountiful harvest.”

There were dozens of these fascinating reports and presentations on offer at Pagtib-ong (Hiligaynon for “to lift up”), and I was sorry that I couldn’t stay for the two full days, after giving a brief talk at the opening.

I had the privilege of attending the first conference last year and found it extremely informative, provocative, disturbing in some ways at it should be, but also giving reason for hope, in that we clearly have not forgotten the importance of those parts of our cultures and societies—parts far removed from the limelight of entertainment and social media—that define who we are.

Those engaged in ICH know that the life of a cultural scholar and researcher can be a very lonely, thankless, and sometimes even dangerous one. They sometimes wonder if their hard work matters to anyone else, or if it will bring real change to people’s lives. They forego more lucrative pursuits chasing after obscure languages and songs that will never make the Top Ten, or even the Top 1,000. The agencies they apply to for funding ask if their work has any practical economic benefits.

This conference was a welcome and warm reminder that they were not alone, that they all belonged to a community of people who understand, almost intuitively, what many others choose to ignore.

Studies like theirs go into the nerves and the bones—indeed, the DNA—of our culture, of what holds us together as peoples deep beneath the skin. The intangible heritage they are retrieving and preserving is an invaluable resource that we can all draw upon in our respective countries and communities around the ASEAN regionNo one else can do this but universities like UP and UPV, and their counterparts around the region, and scholars and cultural workers who believe fervently in needs other than the physical and the economic, those immediately tangible and measurable bottomline concerns that governments and administrations typically prefer to support.

But there is a cultural bottomline as well that we have barely plumbed, that very few people seem to be interested in, forgetting the fact that many of our national and regional problems are cultural in nature, stemming from our ignorance of who our people truly are and what they truly need and want.

This conference happened at a time when truth and human rights have been devalued all around the world. The delegates met in the face of a creeping train of anti-intellectualism, of suspicion and outright hostility towards teachers, students, and universities who dare to speak to power and to challenge falsehood.

This was all the more reason for ICH workers to persevere in what they do—in recovering the threads of our nationhood and weaving them into a coherent narrative that not even the fractiousness of our politics today can tear asunder.

 

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War?is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd?Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.

Penman No. 326: A Season of Winners

Cafe.jpgPenman for Monday, November 5, 2018

 

UNEXPECTEDLY, OCTOBER turned out to be a season of winners, with a series of important awards being announced involving culture and the arts.

Foremost, of course, were the National Artist Awards, eagerly anticipated by the cultural community every two years or so. Dismayed as I was by the Palace’s decision to drop Nora Aunor (and even more by the silly excuse they gave for doing so—I’m reasonably sure I can live with the agony and torment if they went nuts and named me a National Artist, which I would shyly accept), the rest of the list pretty much got a pass from the arts community, as far as I could tell.

I was especially happy to see old friends and acquaintances like Amel Bonifacio, Resil Mojares, Kidlat Tahimik, and Ryan Cayabyab on the list, people whose work I’ve known and respected for a long time. And not to take the shine off any of the winners, but I was also sad to find, once again, that my personal bets for this highest of creative honors—among them the poet Jimmy Abad and the artists Junyee and Jaime de Guzman—would have to wait for yet another round. Having been involved to some minor degree in the search process for previous NAs, I know that more visibility for the artist helps, and we’ll work on it next time.

But there was plenty of recognition to go around last month, albeit on a more local scale.

For the past six years, I’ve been privileged to serve on the Selection Committee of Quezon City’s Manuel L. Quezon Gawad Parangal for Outstanding Citizens and Institutions. It’s a task I’ve shared with former Budget Minister and City Administrator Manny Alba, former UP President Emer Roman, former QC councilor Bert Galarpe, lawyer Vicky Loanzon, and former QC Vice Mayor Connie Angeles.

There’s never any shortage of achievers from Quezon City to acknowledge in whatever field, from politics, education, and business to the arts, media, and entertainment. This year, in ceremonies last October 12, I was delighted to greet some friends among the awardees. (I assure you our friendship had nothing to do with their recognition, impeccably supported by the evidence.)

Among them was the engineer and educator Rey Vea, who belonged to the mythical first batch of the Philippine Science High School, two years ahead of me; we worked together in the UP Collegian, were arrested within a day of each other under martial law, and flew to the US in the same batch of Fulbright study grantees. Rey went on to become dean of the UP College of Engineering, administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority, and president of Mapua University.

Another outstanding QC citizen honored was the poet, editor, and screenwriter Jose “Pete” Lacaba, one of those colleagues I deeply admire as much for his craft as for his dedication to it. Like his own hero Nick Joaquin with whom he worked, Pete never drew a line between journalism and creative writing, and produced first-rate results with whatever he put his mind to. A few years older than me and a Pateros boy, Pete hung out in the same Rizal Provincial Library that I spent many an afternoon in back in the mid-1960s. We later both wrote scripts for Lino Brocka, along with Ricky Lee and Joey Reyes, and the joke among us was that Pete got all the best, long-gestating projects like Jaguar and Bayan Ko because he also wrote the slowest.

And this is as good a time as any to congratulate my fellow STAR columnist and another good friend, the writer and entrepreneur Wilson Lee Flores, whom you’ll find smiling even in the most difficult circumstances, such as when the 79-year-old Kamuning Bakery that he had almost singlehandedly revived burned down last February. The bakery itself had won the same award last year for its artisanal bread, but our committee thought that the proprietor—also a three-time Palanca laureate—deserved one on his own.

In the institutional category, my loudest cheers went to Ma Mon Luk, the iconic house of noodles I’ve patronized since I was a boy and whose owner George Ma Mon Luk is a fellow fountain pen and typewriter collector, and the Erehwon Art Center, which its founder and patron Raffy Benitez has tirelessly guided within a few short years to becoming one of the city’s true cultural oases, virtually a mini-CCP that has projected the best of Philippine art both here and overseas.

And I can’t let this review pass without mentioning the Palanca Awards for Literature, which for the first time in its 68-year-long history held its Awards Night this year in October instead of the customary September 1. Among the winners was a neurosurgeon named Ron Baticulon who had nursed a dream of writing well enough to win a Palanca, which his work “Sometimes You Can’t Save Them All” did, for Second Prize in the Essay in English category. The piece is a powerful and moving account of a young doctor’s encounters with the families of the dying, and of the humanity that asserts itself in the bleakest of situations. I’m looking forward to the release of Ron’s first book from the UP Press early next year.

To them and all the other winners from last month’s derbies, my warmest congratulations.

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