Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the?Philippines Graphic?and the?BusinessMirror?to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow?Philippine STAR?columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 215: An Explosion of Graphic Talent

 

IMG_9307.JPGPenman for Monday, September 5, 2016

 

THERE WERE?plenty of attractions at this year’s AsiaPOP Comicon, held August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—chiefly the presence of such popular stars as X-Men’s Nicholas Hoult, The Vampire Diaries’ Claire Holt, Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie, and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, and comic book artists Whilce Portacio, Mike Zeck, and Ken Lashley, among others. But what drew my attention and my wife Beng’s the most was the explosion of talent among Filipino graphic artists who displayed their work at the far end of the exhibition hall.

Let me take a step back and recall that just last July, thanks to the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time, Beng and I found ourselves attending the San Diego Comic Con—the original and still the biggest pop-culture gathering of its kind. The sortie revived my juvenile interest in comics and all things strange and wonderful—an odd detour from the stodgy realism of my own work, but surprisingly refreshing. It was at the SDCC’s Artists’ Alley that I ran into the Fil-Am comics legend Whilce Portacio, and I interviewed him on the spot (the full interview will appear in a forthcoming issue of Esquire Philippines), during which I learned that he was coming to Manila soon for another pop culture event.

That event turned out to be AsiaPOP. AsiaPOP Comicon Manila was organized by Universal Events & Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Al Ahli Holding Group, whose head of Marketing and Business Development Abdulla Mahmood was glad to share the fact that AsiaPOP’s first Manila outing last year attracted 30,000 attendees—a more than respectable figure considering that the San Diego original typically brings in about 130,000 people over four days. “Pinoys are immersed in pop culture,” Abdulla told me, explaining why his group decided to launch their first such event in the Philippines. “They’re among the heaviest users of social media, too, which helps spread the word. From here, we’re bringing the show to Dubai, and from there on to other cities.”

New TV hit series like Stranger Things are central to that pop culture—Beng and I spent two sleepless nights binge-watching on Netflix, and now can’t wait for the next season to meet the Demogorgon (whom everyone seems to think is…). The senior citizen-professor in me has to wonder how Beng and I can so easily succumb to the seductions of superheroes and their ilk, but then I’d have to admit that with nothing much else to do outside of work, we’ve become TV and movie addicts who must’ve seen every nearly sci-fi and fantasy flick that’s been shown over the past five years (with some notable exceptions—we’ve yet to watch a single episode of Game of Thrones).

So we can understand all the buzz about Millie Bobby Brown, but as newcomers to the comics supershow, we’ve come to realize that the fun isn’t in chasing after individual characters and stars as much as imbibing the sheer variety and spectacle of the experience—everywhere you look, there’s something else to catch the eye, whether it’s the X-Men’s shapeshifting Mystique or a new superhero named… Lolang Tsora?

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That was Tandang Sora as we knew her from our history books, but in her reincarnation in Anthony Dacayo II’s Bayani series, she employs a spinning dreamcatcher to thwart her foes. We found Anthony and his merry band of artists in AsiaPOP’s own version of the Artists’ Alley, which hosted exhibits from dozens of the most gifted comic book artists in the Philippines. Anthony himself works on stories (and some of the drawings) for his Bayani project, which has since been developed by Ranida Games into a phone-based game that employs Filipino heroes as characters with special skill sets (Joe Rizal uses a quill sword, for example, and Rio Mabini his Verdadero Decalogo). It was his way, said Anthony, of bringing our national heroes into the consciousness of a new generation.

In another booth, we found Iloilo-born Jann Galino, who’s already done penciling work for Virginia-based Azure Multimedia’s “Ranger” comics. Jann exemplifies the Pinoy artist on the brink of the big breakthrough. He’s gone back to school to finish his Fine Arts degree while putting together a portfolio that he hopes will be good enough to show the scouts from Marvel and DC the next time they come around. On the other hand, Bukidnon native Harvey Tolibao has already done work for Marvel, DC, and Japanese game companies, among others, co-founding HMT Studios with some friends to expand and speed up the work.

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I was especially happy to run into a former student, Paolo Herras, who has published a series of Strange Native comic books for Quezon City-based Meganon Comics after stints in advertising and indie films, drawing on history and folklore to interrogate the present. Beside him was another young author and artist named Tepai Pascual, whose Maktan 1521 is a graphic retelling of the encounter between Magellan and Lapu-lapu.

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The biggest Pinoy names in the comic-book industry may now be too busy to appear at AsiaPOP—like Leinil Yu who trained with Whilce Portacio in the 1990s and is now one of the world’s most sought-after artists, and Budjette Tan, who now works for Lego in Denmark as a creative director in Lego’s ad agency. (A week after AsiaPOP, I ran into the California-based animator Jess Espa?ola, who won an Emmy in 2008 for his work on The Simpsons; he missed AsiaPOP but was in town to help motivate younger artists at his alma mater, the UP College of Fine Arts.)

But there’s no lack of younger Filipino graphic talent eager to follow on their heels, and events like AsiaPOP and the big Comicon in San Diego can provide the best launch pads for these Wacom-wielding wizards. (To know more about Filipino comics and their creators, check out http://www.philippinecomics.net.)

 

WITHIN DAYS?of each other, two dear friends passed away last week—gallery owner Norma Crisologo Liongoren and retired professor and children’s book author Sylvia Mendez Ventura.

Norma was a memorable character whose eye-catching fashions lent more than a dash of color to her exhibition openings and parties in Cubao’s pioneering Liongoren Gallery. Most importantly, she was a generous spirit, lending artists both new and old her unflagging support and outright charity. Beng was especially close to Norma, and when I found her weeping and praying in our gazebo in the garden early one morning, I knew Norma had passed on in the night.

Sylvia was my Shakespeare teacher when I returned to school in the 1980s, and after one of her subjects, I was hooked on Shakespeare and the English Renaissance for life. Impeccably coiffed, this New York-educated diplomat’s daughter was a style icon who, like Robert Graves’ White Goddess, could lay bare your ignorance and cut you down with a single phrase. For some reason (and much to my classmates’ annoyance), I became her pet in class, and she would sometimes hand the lesson over to me to teach—which helped me decide to stay on and become a teacher myself. Sylvia was also a gifted painter, and I don’t think we ever told her, but for these past ten years, one of her flower paintings has hung over headboard. Good night, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!