Friday, January 4, 2013

The company I kept, briefly, in December

A rare smile coaxed out of Luis Teodoro
"But we all know who, or what, the writer is. He or she is a poet, an essayist and/or a novelist, as the initials and acronym of this organization suggest. But he or she is also the writer of the editorials and columns, the investigative and explanatory reports that are among the many forms journalism has developed in discharging its public task of describing and interpreting the human environments. In the digital age, the writer is also the blogger who makes it his concern to gather and provide information on issues of citizen concern and to comment on them online."
--Excerpt from Luis V. Teodoro's "Interpreting the World: The Writer as Public Intellectual," keynote address as the PEN Philippines Conference at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Silangan Hall, Dec. 6, 2012 

This being a belated account of what transpired at the last Philippine PEN conference, the blogger finds it fitting to begin with what Prof. Teodoro had said less than a month ago.

He pointed out that "the intellectual, like the writer, is necessarily public."  Apart from this, he enlarged the definition of what a writer is to include not just poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists (the traditional membership of PEN which has chapters all over the world) but especially journalists. 

He spoke in the latter's defense, saying, "Those writers who are neither poets nor novelists and 'only journalists,' are too often denied the distinction of being included in the august company called writers, the products of their craft being thought to be too ephemeral, too bound by time, and in some if not most cases, constricted as well by the interests, whether political or corporate, of the media organizations they write for.

"Journalism is truly writing by the numbers, that virtue, if virtue it indeed be, being driven primarily by the need for information gathering skills. But journalism can be more than information gathering, as many journalists, among them Nick Joaquin, have demonstrated. The journalist who guards and fights for his independence and who is more than a gatherer of information can also be a great writer, if, as Joaquin warned, he approached every article as if it involved the parting of the Red Sea or the splitting of the atom."

Manong Ed
Teodoro, himself a fiction writer, newspaper columnist, journalism teacher, former political detainee during the Marcos dictatorship and introduced by Manong Ed Maranan as "70-ish, a natty dresser and a national democrat," acknowledged journalism for its long tradition of lending "itself to the need of the intellectual for public engagement. But the Philippine experience has demonstrated again and again that public engagement can be extremely perilous for both writer and intellectual. The perils are not limited to dying in poverty under alien skies like Graciano Lopez Jaena, or execution through musketry like Rizal. During the martial law period, hundreds of writers were arrested and detained, and others killed in demonstration of how driven by violence is the authoritarian fear that information and insight are values too dangerous to tolerate in those who hold them.

"Emman Lacaba was slain without the benefit of charge or trial for joining the army of the poor, departing thus from the conventional path of  middle class ease and the Bohemian excess usually—and mistakenly—associated with writers. The poet Lorena Barros was similarly executed—the exquisitely ironic term devised by the military is 'salvaged'—while hundreds of intellectuals in academia and outside were arrested, others were made to disappear never to be seen or heard of again, or thrown into prison, as some of those present today were.

Teodoro: "..[T]he intellectual speaks the truth and exposes lies—to the end... of interpreting the world towards changing it."
"The country is no longer under martial rule. But today the journalist and poet Ericson Acosta is still in prison, sharing the fate of others in other countries where dictators rule."

Teodoro pointed out that not all journalists are blemish-free, saying,"Among journalists some have been more successful than others, and many have succumbed to the blandishments of wealth and power, serving as the spokespersons of local tyrants, business interests, criminal syndicates, the military and/or the police. But public intellectuals have nevertheless emerged among journalists despite the chaos in the communities, where warlordism and corruption, environmental degradation and human rights violations are most pronounced and occurring in the larger context of  the poverty and injustice that for centuries have afflicted that portion of humanity we know as Filipinos. These public intellectuals and writers have armed themselves, out of  sheer necessity, with a coherent theoretical framework with which they examine and report events in behalf of the fundamental need to understand the roots of human misery.

"Many are in military Orders of Battle and almost regularly receive death threats as the reward for their work. They write with the constant possibility of being ambushed and slain, in courageous affirmation of that commitment to 'speaking the truth and exposing lies' Noam Chomsky declares is the intellectual’s responsibility, interpreting the Philippine world to their readers as  part of their contribution to the historic necessity to change it. In what is known as the alternative press, the same focus is as evident in the work of those who labor unrecognized but who have found among those Filipinos fighting for the change that for at least a century has eluded this land, the growing and appreciative audience that can do something about it."

After Teodoro, what could one say or dare add? 

Nery called Rizal "a man of projects...a scholar of history."
John Nery, a newspaper columnist, author of Revolutionary Spirit: Rizal in Southeast Asia and one of the panelists, quoted the fervid letter-writer that was Rizal in his paper "Condensados en un libro: Fr. Vicente Garcia, the Noli, and Rizal's Theory of 'Intellectual Tradition'". These words from the 1800s still have currency among young and mid-career writers:

"I who belong to the young generation, anxious to do something for their country and uneasy about the mysterious future, I need to come to men who have seen much and studied more so that with their experience they may supplement our youth and limited knowledge. We need besides the applause and the blessing of the old to encourage us in the colossal struggle and the gigantic campaign that we have thrown over our dwarfish shoulders. However great is our enthusiasm, however confident is our youth, however promising our illusions, we hesitate nevertheless in certain moments, especially when we find ourselves alone and abandoned."

The rest of Dec. 6 went by like a blur, forgive the cliche. For this blogger, it was enough that the most solitary, almost anti-social beings that writers and journalists could be sometimes, weren't clawing the eyes out of each other's faces. 

Angela Stuart Santiago
It was also delightful to put a face on certain writers one admired from a distance, the mother-daughter Angela Stuart Santiago and Katrina Stuart Santiago, both master essayists and critics. The former called Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile a liar out to revise history to protect his political and business interests. This is exemplified by his pushing son Jackie to run for, and succeed him as, senator.

She accused Enrile, who came out smelling like roses after the Corona trial, of rewriting history in his so-called autobiography, an exercise that she called a throwback to the Dark Ages when politicians reinvented themselves as icons.

On Enrile's attempt to rewrite history, moderator Rony V. Diaz said, "If that is not sad, I don't know what sad is."

Quite moving was Jaime An Lim's reading of his poem "I Am Finally All I Have" about a "short-time" encounter between two men. 

He spoke of how hard it was for homosexual men of his generation to blend in, to "banish the limp wrist, cultivate a manly baritone" so they could not give themselves away. He considered himself one of those "not visible" gays even if he and the others had been around for the longest time.
Lim: "Liberation starts with self-affirmation."

 That was why he considered the anthology Ladlad, edited by Danton Remoto and Neil Garcia, as "the first Cry of Balintawak of the gay community." In a bigoted world, Lim said, Ladlad helped unite the gay writing community in the belief in the power of numbers "to be heard" and "to change the world...Listen, because we are many."

Jun Cruz Reyes spoke in Filipino about the need for writers to shake the power structures of society given the speed with which today's generation moves: "May nakakarating, may naiiwan." 

He noted how topics discussed among writers have veered towards safe ones instead of their seeking out a national discourse that could capture the public's imagination. Such a discourse would be characterized by "pukpukan ng bayag."

He lamented how Rizal has been reduced to "a myth," apart from his figure appearing on the cover of matchboxes and in cement monuments. Cruz Reyes cited the not so recent history of Filipino writers during the dictatorship wherein they were jailed, tortured or executed while confronting issues of oppression. He said this situation goes on in countries like China, Burma and Turkey.
Jun Cruz Reyes

He closed by saying writing should go beyond celebrating the self or setting up one's own literary clique.

In most conferences of this kind, sometimes the most exciting discussions, in whispered tones, happen at the back of the room. 

It was great to hang out by the secretariat table staffed by Shirley Lua who looked as young as her college literature students. Sometimes, she'd scold us, with a smile, for doubling over in laughter as we found ourselves engaging in pleasurable gossip. 

I felt the temperature in that air-conditioned hall go up a bit when Ed Cabagnot marched in partly to listen to the discussions, partly to play. 

When I asked why he doesn't co-emcee Writers' Night at UP Diliman with Gou de Jesus anymore, he explained why he was banned from the event. I don't know if this physical reaction of mine is possible. But my non-virgin ears blushed!
Backroom crowd: Lito Zulueta, Shirley Lua, nice decent lady, Nic Tiongson, someone whose jaw must be locked sometimes and Ed Cabagnot
When the Miclat couple, Mario and Alma, arrived late, it was another occasion for a group hug and shot. Front row from left: Dr. Luis Gatmaitan, children's book author, Domingo and Edna May Landicho, Mario, Alma and Shirley. Rubbernecking are Wendell Capili and a woman whose jaw came unlocked.
The adjective "patrician" becomes the old guard: National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, Rony Diaz and Elmer Ordoñez
At the Philippine PEN, Writers' Solidarity Night has been a long tradition. I remember one  author in the '80s who slumped in a drunken stupor in the men's room of the then US territory on Roxas Blvd., Seabreeze, and woke to find some US military police glaring at him.
Gemma aging young-ly
Guerrero cousins Amadis and Gemma

On the last month of 2012, the old guard, the avant garde, even the guarded and shy convened at Dencio's by Manila Bay for prose and poetry readings in English, Filipino, Chavacano and other languages, drinking, more gossiping and photo ops with the country's first Miss International, Gemma Cruz Araneta, herself an essayist and fictionist.

That's anthologist Erlinda Panlilio caught in the middle.
The boys couldn't contain their thrill at the visual feast in their presence. Soon, Domeng Landicho was declaiming extemporaneously his admiration for Ms. Araneta and ended his on-the-spot poem with a courtly kiss of her hand

I should've butted in by crooning, "Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng buhay ko."

Boys at heart at the back: Francis Macansantos and Arnold Molina Azurin. Seated are a Chinay writer who prefers to use a pen name, Gemma and Mrs. Panlilio.
 Photos taken by Babeth, except the ones with her in them
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