Monday, February 23, 2015

Salute to their comrade professor

Two nostalgia persons: Geraldine C. Maayo with her former professor Elmer A. Ordoñez Photo by Elizabeth Lolarga

Dr. Elmer A. Ordoñez’s influence on his students extends widely. That’s how an ideal and effective professor should be.

Although retired from teaching, he remains a literary scholar and a prolific writer. His latest book is also his first novel, Snows of Yesteryear (University of the Philippines Press).

He told the blogger: “I keep track of the output of every generation following mine. I’m not limited to creative writing. I am open to other forms of discourse and categories of writing produced in the various contexts of the times.”

In the ’60s he immersed himself in the works of committed writers and those produced in the writers’ workshops at the UP and Silliman University. He observed, “In the ’70s there emerged alternative forms–resistance literature, underground writing, literature of refusal–many expressed in forthright language in underground publications, some in veiled forms such as allegory like Pete Lacaba’s acrostic poem published in above-ground journals. Others were circulated by hand in mimeograph like Hulagpos or Mga Tula ng Rebolusyon.”

He read the works of writers groups like Galian sa Arte at Tula, Philippine Literary Arts Council with its journal Caracoa, Philippine Writers Union with its Siglaya and Mithi. This literary scholar delved into the regional cultural forms such as the isymaling (Samar), baliling (Mindanao), composo (Negros), salidom-ay (Ilocos) that underground writers appropriated. He called all these “emergent writing” or “anti-hegemonic literature.”

While wartime matured his generation, he said of the generations after him and the possibility of social justice being achieved, finally: “Each generation of writers will figure out what oppresses them. Our generation was traumatized by the war or we experienced direct oppression. We knew what we missed–peace and freedom. But the Cold War affected us in another way.”

He noted the “escapist trend in writing. Instead of writing about the war, there was a tendency to look inward. These writers were influenced by the models used by their writing mentors–Joyce’s ‘Araby’ and ‘The Dead,’ Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ and the stories taught in writers’ workshops. These were tales on self-discovery, disenchantment and disillusion.”

He recalled the question of Wallace Stegner who taught creative writing at Stanford University. In a visit to the Philippines, Stegner asked “Where are the stories about the Huk rebellion, the peasant unrest?”

Ordoñez said, “Our generation was too preoccupied with the craft of fiction and couldn’t be bothered with new hostilities. I shouldn’t generalize, but this was how my generation coped with the Cold War—by turning inward. There are exceptions to be sure.”

Asked who and what he is reading now, he listed Jim Richardson’s Komunista: The Genesis of the PKP 1902-1935, Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio’s Binondo: Once Upon a War, Emmanuel Calairo’s Cavite Sa Digmaan, Luis Teodoro’s Vantage Point and Rizal’s annotated edition of Morga’s Sucesos de Filipinas. He is also rereading Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County.

Four English majors who were his students, then colleagues, at the UP of the ’60s pay him tribute with their memories.

Geraldine C. Maayo, retired professor from the UP School of Labor and Industrial Relations and a fictionist, said Ordoñez “had a gentle disposition, a gentle voice. Everything about him was gentle: the way he walked, the way he lectured. He had just come from Oxford. He was an authority on Joseph Conrad. But we never saw anything in him that suggested that he thought he was and should be recognized as an authority. He always lectured in that gentle voice of his, occasionally smiling. He always had a prepared lecture. He struck me as a respectful man, respectful of everybody and definitely of his students. Also a bit shy.”

She said of him as a writer, “I like the way he writes, what he writes about. We converge in this aspect. We write of things that are very personal to us. We are both nostalgia persons, sentimental persons.”

Poet-novelist Mila D. Aguilar recalled that Ordoñez was her last Research in Comparative Lit professor before she graduated in’69. She had taken too many Humanities subjects and had forgotten about this requirement.

She said, “He gave me a 1.0 (Excellent) and got me to teach at the department the very semester after without my having to get my transcript of records. Elmer was a thorough liberal, kind to a fault. When he got me to teach, together with Charito Ramirez and Gelacio Guillermo, he shoved aside many other applicants who were waiting in the wings. He would not have known that the three instructors he recruited subsequently became radical, if not apparently yet. The ones he shunted were absolute conservatives. As a result, he was labelled a progressive, in fact blamed when the three of us disappeared into the netherworld of the underground.”

Now that she relates to him as a friend, she said, “Elmer is still the same, thoroughly liberal and kind to a fault. He has a wide-ranging view of things, insisting that Emilio Aguinaldo was not a traitor for the simple reason that he listened to the prominent people of Cavite where he lived.”

Yet, she continued, “he can be very truthful. In 2000, I asked for his recommendation for a renewed teaching post in the English department. He correctly stated that though I was creative and all, my weakness was in research. That got me to rethink my life. From then on I became an avid researcher if not in physical libraries, which I still find difficult to access, at least on Google and the Internet.”

Essayist-fictionist Jenny Llaguno described Ordoñez as “the quintessential mentor—was, is and will be ever patient, ever brilliant, ever shy, ever soft-spoken. He has a lodestone of wisdom to share. This has not changed in the thirty years of my relationship with him as a student, editor and friend.”

She noticed that lately “he is not as quick to answer because of hearing impairment. His voice falters before an audience. His hair has turned grey, but these are changes brought on by time and loss. A certain melancholy vis-a-vis a certain smile shades his face, a certain longing, too, for his wife. He taught me how to focus when I got derailed in answering an examination question, how to copyedit/proofread, how to be discursive. He has not really changed.”

Essayist-book artist Delfin Tolentino Jr. of UP Baguio recalled being in Ordoñez’s Modern British Literature class. “I was on my way to getting a flat 1.0 until I flunked a long exam where I attributed a couple of excerpts to the wrong poets. The bluffer was finally caught!”

He continued, “Elmer was the department chair at the time. They were the heady days of activism. We pilloried him for refusing to get involved. His radicalization came later. By that time, we were no longer in touch. When we met again after his exile, his first words to me were: ‘Delfin, I am no longer a wishy-washy liberal!’”—Elizabeth Lolarga
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