This is Margalit Fox, staff writer for The New York Times, who writes obits for the paper. She is my favorite talking head in Vanessa Gould's documentary Obit (2016), her feature film debut on obituary writing.
[Aside #1: Gould first impressed me with her short subject documentary Between the Folds, which was about the art of paper-folding, an engrossing film.]
[Aside #2: I love the obituaries of the New York Times; have been a fan of the section for years. They're such compelling essays, and I always seek them out when a favorite person of mine -- a writer, an actor, etc. -- dies.]
I love Fox in the film because she gives the most rounded insights, like: "It's counterintuitive, perhaps, but obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life." How do you make a documentary about death fun and compelling? Gould found a way: celebrate life.
9:00 AM |
The Value of Culture in the Development of Dumaguete
Early this year, the effort to establish local councils in Dumaguete that would spearhead policy with an eye towards heritage and art and culture, began with a simple meeting of individuals tasked to do a quick cultural mapping of Dumaguete. Its facilitator was Dessa Quesada-Palm, working with City Tourism Officer Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio—and the people they gathered were representatives of the arts, cultural organizations, journalism, sports, business, academia, and others.
We were tasked to give initial insights that Dumaguete could use as impetus to make culture and heritage be part of its blueprint for development in the coming years.
In that meeting, Dessa briefed us about the need to set parameters for culture in the name of national, not just local, development: “A couple of years ago, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts set out to ask a very brave question: how can one really say that art and culture has helped economic goals, poverty alleviation, disaster risk management, and others?”
Indeed, what has arts and culture done so far for social development?
These questions needed asking, not because they are fair questions—they aren’t—but because they embody the general dismissiveness that artists and cultural workers regularly get when held up to proclaim measurable contributions to community well-being. This dismissiveness take on many forms: among them, the slashing of public endowment for art programs, the gradual disappearance of music and fine arts in school curriculum [in my high school days, music was folded into one subject that included physical education and health], the destruction of heritage architecture to make way for parking lots, the quizzical looks that students in music, fine arts, and creative writing get when they announce their majors and are then asked: “How is that practical?”
Never mind the studies that actually suggest that discipline in the humanities make fields steeped in STEM more competitive [the Apple story is the best example], or urban design observations that communities that embrace artists are more thriving and make for good economic indicators.
“The bottom line here, whatever it is that was identified by NCCA as relevant,” Dessa told us, “it needed indicators.”
Indicators are benchmarks we could measure the value of things that are often intangible, and this includes culture.
The first focus could be an assessment about what it is in the local community that we have to celebrate—pertaining, of course, to its flagship cultural programs. In Dumaguete, you have Sandurot; Bayawan has Tawo-Tawo; Sibulan has Yagyag. This assessment is important because cultural celebrations cannot just be spun from nothingness; they need an anchor in community life and culture to make the celebration more authentic, more truly a reflection of the community story.
Cebu’s Sinulog gets its spark from the commemoration of the Sto. Nino story in its history and, together with Aklan’s Ati-Atihan Festival, set the blueprint for other festivals in the country to follow in the conception of their reasons for being. At the outset, the impetus from Cebu is a good one. But the drawback has proven to be this: the Sinulog model has ceased to become mere inspiration; instead its very rhythm has been copied wholesale by other festivals without organizers stopping to think, what is the rhythm of my own place? It has become a practice for most festival performers to hire trainers from other places, like Cebu—and this affects the culture. This is why whenever you go to another city or town in the throes of carnival spirit, you get the same percussion beat, the same dance beats that you see performed in the streets of Cebu every January.
There is no value in being a copycat, and that includes socio-economic value. Which is why, for Dumaguete, we had to ask:
What is the Dumaguete story? What is the rhythm of Dumaguete? What is the inspiration of being a Dumaguete artist?
From the answers we hope to achieve, we can create a dance from the rhythm that is inspired by Dumaguete itself.
The second focus is on culture and heritage preservation and its link to risk-reduction management, environmental concerns, and socio-economic responsibilities and concerns.
What is the role of local artists and cultural workers in any of these?
And the answer is, truth to tell, simply this: know yourself. The community must know itself thoroughly, and this includes, by and large, its culture and heritage. A community that has a complete map, a complete picture, of what makes it the vibrant community that it is, is indeed a community that can address properly its socio-economic concerns, its environmental concerns, and its risk management concerns.
A few snippets, among many, to illustrate:
When one goes to a pasalubong shop in town, whether you are a tourist, or a native simply interested in sampling local goods, one should not only see on the shelves of these pasalubong shops products that are ubiquitous everywhere else like Boracay; they must have Dumaguete products that can be really be called “Dumaguete’s own.” (But what do we exactly mean by “Dumaguete’s own”?)
When one buys a product made of uway—and by doing so, one is convinced that he is doing his part to support local tradition and artisans—one might not immediately be aware that uway has an endangered status, which might come as a shock to many, and thus its harvesting must be regulated. (What are other natural things that we have in our community that needs protecting?)
In a country that is in constant danger of typhoons and earthquakes, when one thinks of reducing risk, what constitutes the list that needs saving beyond people and livelihood, if saving a community also means saving the things that make it the community that it is?
According to the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, risk-reduction management “aims to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through an ethic of prevention.” Accordingly, “disasters often follow natural hazards,” and a “disaster’s severity depends on how much impact a hazard has on society and the environment.”
This calls then for a mapping of the community’s heritage, which includes not only artistic effects or monuments, but also its natural heritage and creative industries. A cultural mapping is a process of identifying natural and cultural heritage resources of a specific locality for purposes of conservation and development, which then enables us to understand and share culture, to re-think history, and to promote creativity and development.
Only with this map can we consolidate a community’s identity and soul—what makes it tick—and from that can spring a plan for community development that is organic, that is reflective of community ideals, that is finally beneficial to all.
When I was a teenager [I remember high school*], I stammered a lot -- but only when I read in public. I couldn’t make out the words properly for some reason, and public reading became torture for me. It took some effort overcoming it: when I was alone, I’d read aloud and I’d be fine, and I kept at it, until the problem went away for the most part. (I still stammer when I am unprepared.) Today, every time I’m asked to speak in public, I do a ritual which I’ve carried over from my stammering years: I go to a private place -- a CR, for example -- and I’d repeat five times this tongue twister: “Betty bought a bit of butter, but Betty said, ‘This butter is bitter.’ So Betty bought a bit of better butter to make her bitter butter better.” It works.
*A grade school classmate just informed me I also stammered way before that
The perfect chair, I just learned from BBC's The Genius of Design documentary series from 2010, is every ambitious designer's holy grail of design. My favorite is still the walnut lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames from 1953. And my most hated -- because of its sheer banal ubiquity -- is the poly chair variation of the monobloc plastic chair by Karim Rashid from 2003. This is what I do when I get insomnia: I watch films or read books about design or religion.
Three things I pondered about while watching Michael Almereyda's Experimenter (2015):
 There are films that strike one as cinematic essays. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010) is really a dramatized demonstration of several approaches of literary criticism to the iconic Allen Ginsburg poem. In a similar stylistic vein, Almereyda's attempt is a fourth-wall breaking critical reassessment of social psychologist Stanley Milgram's contributions to the field, particularly his work on obedience and authority. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does. Both Howl and Experimenter work -- they come off as cool dramatizations of academic ideas, and we are enriched simply by just watching.
 How is it that in 2015, we got two cinematic takes on very famous psychological experiments on the banality of evil? [Hannah Arendt would have been interested.] There's this film, which takes a very deep look into the Milgram experiment [which posits that ordinary people will render evil acts as long as they are made to do so under authority of someone else; e.g., "I was just doing my job"]. Then there's Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment, a less successful film about the aborted psychological experiment of Philip Zimbardo on authority and incarceration [which demonstrated how ordinary people, when given the slightest power and authority over other people in a hierarchy, tend to abuse that power]. Both films in 2015! Did they anticipate the rise of Trump, Duterte, and other neo-despots that started to bedevil us in 2016?
 I miss Winona Ryder. She plays the minor role here of Mrs. Milgram, but she makes the most of it, lending the part a quiet but also quirky elegance.
Listening to film soundtracks again. The musical scores, specifically. I haven’t done this in a while, years in fact. Here’s the great violinist Itzhak Perlman playing the theme from John William’s score for Schindler's List. It’s impossible not to be moved by this. And yet, at the back of my head, I cannot help but think: Is it all right to swoon, to be so moved, by music that is, in reality, a dirge for six million dead?
* * *
The music of Rachel Portman is so underrated.
* * *
I am convinced Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the score of Inception is a musical piece of towering beauty. Seven years hence, it’s hypnotic hold remains, and relentlessly so. It starts quietly, like one settling to sleep, and in the course of unfolding, crescendos in echoes of the same musical beat -- but bigger, more urgent, like a dream that grows and grows. And then, just when you think there is no peak to this, just a continuation of unfettered dreamful longing, it settles back down again and dives into the simplicity of piano keys tinkling, a thread of violin to complete a sound of melancholy. And then it ends in a shattered note. Like one waking up, remembering the wisps of a dream, and stupefied by the bright morning sunlight greeting our waking eyes.
Back in 2011, the Filipino-American fictionist Veronica Montes sent me all the way from San Francisco, CA a copy of Andrew Aciman's Call Me By Your Name. The book consumed me. The prose was deliciously overheated, but it was lyrical and perfectly evocative of the kind of loving and longing we all go through, and there was an incisive intelligence that pulsed in the narrative. I have been Elio. And I have been Oliver. The book stayed with me. In 2015, when I was writing "Compartments," first published in Esquire Magazine in 2016 and now included in DON'T TELL ANYONE, I think Aciman's prose provided the emotional blueprint with which to tackle a difficult story.
Thank you, Ver, for the book!
Get Veronica Montes' latest collection of short stories, Benedicta Takes Wing, here.
When Prudencio B. Sirilan passed away last October 18, he was 69 years old—and he would have passed on very quietly, remembered as loving father to his family and mentor to many, were it not for a quick notice that the Dumaguete City Tourism Office thought of posting in his remembrance on the day he died. Absent that, I suspect there would have been not much else, although it must be said that he was indeed a beloved figure. Perhaps his being an artist would be recalled by some friends, and the rest of Dumaguete would have moved on quickly, the way it usually does, comfortably ignorant of its history, of its shapers, of its heritage.
Prodi was the consummate cultural worker, and he had given so much of his life to the cultural development of Dumaguete City—and it is only right that we should remember him well. He was one of the original organizers of the city’s Sandurot Festival, conceptualizing the first ceremony in 1988 as a festival that would tell the story of Dumaguete and its people. That alone compels proper appreciation. It felt almost fitting—if we could say that—that he would choose to leave us at the height of this year’s iteration of the Buglasan, another festival he helped shape.
Today, Dumagueteños of course are familiar with Sandurot and Buglasan, but little remembrance is spared the inspired men and women who conceived of them. The truth may be that what they have created became bigger than them—as it should—which ensures an institution that belongs ultimately to local culture and tradition and not to specific names of people.
But I would have liked a memorial of some sort to carve in historical permanence their contributions to very specific heritage work. Thus far, however, Dumaguete as a city has no museums yet to showcase its culture and history, and there is almost an absence of research work and conservation efforts to properly showcase its heritage.
In 2012, when I was editing and putting together Handulanataw, the history of art of culture in Silliman University, that lack made itself profoundly apparent to me, and I finally confessed three years later of that frustration: “One of the things that constantly made my heart break was getting told that the art pieces and book collections and papers of cultural pioneers we were researching on were gone or were scattered to the proverbial wind: photographs destroyed by flood water, paintings burned and lost or stolen, papers eaten by termites, books relegated to dusty corners of stockrooms where they were being eaten by god-knows-what and pooped on by rats. I found old books owned by Albert Faurot that way. I asked for the manuscripts of one local playwright who had died many years back and was told by the family: ‘We burned them. We thought they were just trash.’ And Sendong, of course, destroyed many, many old photographs.”
I continued that confession with this observation: “I have to wonder how come no plucky young local historian is doing some initiative in scanning the old photographs of old families here in Negros Oriental? How come we don’t have a museum that would showcase the works of Jose Laspiñas and Francisco Verano, before they’re eaten away by more termites and neglect? How come no local theatre groups are producing the plays of Bobby Flores Villasis, Amiel Leonardia, Elsa Coscolluela, Ephraim Bejar, and Roberto J. Pontenila Jr.? How come we don’t make concerts of the music of Zoe Lopez and the collected Visayan folk songs of Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham?”
Of late, the digital absence of much of Dumaguete’s history and culture leaves a gaping maw that provides a sad answer to this revision of a popular existential question: “If you google something, and you come up with nothing, does it even exist?”
To test that, I googled “Jose Pro Teves,” Dumaguete’s longest-serving mayor, a politician beloved by generations of Dumagueteños, and instrumental in shaping much of the social infrastructure of this city. The hits in Google gave the most rudimentary returns, nothing at all substantial. I could get his birthdate, but the Internet did not even know when he died.
Everybody also knows about the campanario, the Dumaguete bell tower that has become the city’s enduring icon. But what about Don Jose Manuel Fernandez de Septien, the parish priest who was instrumental in building the Dumaguete convento and the original watchtowers, and Don Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, the parish priest who built the present campanario upon the ruins of one of Father Septien’s watchtowers? We don’t have pictures of them, and we don’t know much about them—although Father Roman Sagun, our indefatigable researcher of local parish history, does try to give what history he could find about them.
Things of late have been changing, of course. In 2017, after years and years of protracted planning and wishful thinking, we have finally created the City Heritage Council, under Dr. Earl Jude Cleope, and the City Art and Culture Council—and they definitely have their work cut out for them, because there is so much to do and so little time to accomplish what needs to be done now, and Dumaguete is in that crucial transition phase in its development where much of its heritage is in the brink of disappearing.
This is why I have decided to shift the focus of this column to local heritage matters, to give voice to what must be done in Dumaguete, and to ensure that our remembrance can become more concrete.
It’s the only way we can give honor to Prodi and to others like him who have toiled for years to give us what we now know—and take for granted—as the unique Dumaguete experience of being the “city of gentle people,” and the “cultural center of the south.”
I will always feel the pain and dark anger of the likes of Alex Forrest, Angelique Bouchard … and Rebecca Bunch. But dear God, this episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [S03E04] goes dark so deeply, so deliciously. The insanity makes sense.
And I wish that in life there’d be a Josh Groban accosting me in the dark to sing something like:
Life is a gradual series of revelations That occur over a period of time It’s not some carefully crafted story It’s a mess and we’re all gonna die. If you saw a movie that was like real life You’d be like, ‘What the hell was that movie about? It was really all over the place.’ Life doesn’t make narrative sense.
Winona Ryder, in an interview with Diane Sawyer for 20/20 in 1999, revealed how it was to be complicit in hiding our deepest pain under a facade of fabulousness: “I used to drive around [Los Angeles] at night listening to music because I couldn’t sleep. [Once] I was driving around, and I was wishing so badly that I had someone to talk to, a friend, someone — and I didn’t. And I saw this magazine stand, and I saw the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, and it said something like, ‘Winona Ryder, The Luckiest Girl in the World.’ And it broke my heart, because there I was being in so much pain and feeling so confused, and feeling so lost in my life. And I wasn’t allowed to complain because I was ‘so lucky,’ you know, and I was ‘so blessed,’ and I made a lot of money, and my problems weren’t real problems… But the stuff I was going through was difficult… I love the first line of [Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, a book about a girl going through clinical depression, and being institutionalised for it]: ‘People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy.’ Which I think is very true.” She produced the film adaptation of the book, she said, to give a voice to people exactly like her.
And yes, to be "interrupted" is "easy."
By 2001, Winona succumbed to the pressure and famously self-sabotaged -- a shoplifting incident that made headline news and ruined her career, but which she, in retrospect today, calls her saving grace.
I remember about six years ago I was looking at my own Facebook timeline, and an odd thought came to me: "I wish I had that life for real." It came unbidden, and I had to laugh -- but it revealed something about social media I think everyone knows at a fundamental level but cannot seem to grasp fully. All our posts are curated: we cherrypick our lives to create a narrative we want the world to believe about ourselves. IT IS NOT BAD, but it's also not good if we come to compare our days with the curated posts of our online friends. They aren't always at the beach. They aren't always chasing beautiful sunsets. They aren't always having dinners with fabulous friends. They aren't always gazing romantically at their beloved's eyes. You don't see the long and frustrating commute alone, or the rainy days, or the betrayals of an old friend, or the vicious fight with the significant other. [The ones who air their dirty laundry online is another story.] Realizing this does bring a measure of relief, no? But it's a realization that's hard to sustain. We have been culturally programmed to think of photos as being truthful, and immediate. And so even though we know they are curated, seeing the visual representations of friends' social media selves make the old pangs of rabid comparison rise up again. That adventurous trip through Argentina, those beautiful flexed biceps from gym workouts, that fun Broadway show -- why am I here browsing Facebook in my pajamas in a bedroom that needs cleaning now? Why am I writing this, at midnight? I'm really not sure, hahaha.
The Center Will Not Hold (2017), Griffin Dunne's fascinating new documentary on the writer Joan Didion, begins with her voice-over, reading from the preface of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968): "I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder." I felt this kind of paralysis early this year -- but I think most writers do. I'm glad for this film; it is a fascinating portrait of an important literary voice. Who has read "Goodbye to All That" [read here] and not been astounded by that sheer command of language?
Years ago, I had a strange visitation. I had decided to move back to my old apartment in Tubod, where I still live, because campus housing was not for me and my huge library needed proper shelving. It must have been October, during a semestral break, and I had spent the day directing the move from Acacia Cottage to this bachelor's pad hidden away in a corner of a compound with its own entrance.
I loved the dilapidated look of the pad from the outside -- a swirl of vines, an unfinished fence of concrete blocks, a "front gate" of grills, a pile of old lumber in the adjacent backyard -- because it felt like a good illustration for the truism to never judge a book by its cover. Inside the pad were walls of books and paintings and what-not. It's a small pad, a long rectangular box really, with a kitchenette.
That moving day, everything was still in boxes, and my bed had just been installed in, its mattress still naked. I was so exhausted I decided to take a nap, naked. The minute my head fell on the pillows, I was gone. I'm not sure how long I slept. Two hours? Three? But it was almost dark when I woke up -- and I had awakened because even in my deep sleep, I was aware that someone was watching me.
I came to groggily, and towering over me was a woman in dark rags, and she was looking down at me with glaring eyes. For some reason, I didn't panic. Still lying down completely vulnerable in my nakedness, I asked her in genuine confusion, "What are you doing here?" She didn't say anything, just glared at me, and then she gave me a terrible smile. That felt like eternity. After a while, she walked, or glided, slowly to where the door was. I had managed to scramble up from bed. Again, I asked her: "What are you doing here?" She slowly turned to face me; this time her face was a complete blank, completely expressionless, completely unnerving. I scrambled to dress up. But by then she had disappeared. I raced outside, to an evening that was devoid of traffic and people, and looked up and down the street, but she was gone.
A fantasy edit [using Daredevil footage] of a Trump downfall scenario, by YouTuber 1oneclone, to the tuneful sound of Matt Monro singing "From Russia with Love." This is so strangely satisfying, it almost feels like porn. [Not that I would know, you know?] Can we have a similar fantasy edit of...never mind.
It took me years to finish “The Boys From Rizal Street.” My first notes for it were assembled in 2001, if I’m not mistaken. It took many heartbreaks, and many scratches of notes scattered here and there, to finally coalesce to a story, and several others, one summer in 2015. I had just quit being coordinator of the creative writing center after three years of doing a lot of literary stuff without doing any writing at all -- and I was angry and ready to burst. And for several afternoons in a now-defunct cafe called The Venue, I churned out the stories that would now become Don’t Tell Anyone. That’s me and my bleeding heart on those pages, and thank you for sharing the journey with me, Shakira Andrea Sison.
4:41 PM |
Call for Manuscripts to the 2018 Cebu Young Writers’ Studio
The Libulan Queer Collective, a writers’ bloc of queer poets, essayists, fictionists, and playwrights from the southern Philippines, in partnership with Kagis Bisaya and YOUTeacH Philippines-Central Visayas, is now accepting applications to the 2018 Cebu Young Writers’ Studio to be held in January 2018 at the University of Cebu-Banilad at Gov. M. Cuenco Ave., Cebu City.
The Cebu Young Writers’ Studio, an adaptation of the Cagayan de Oro Young Writers’ Studio, is an annual creative writing fellowship for 14 of the most promising emerging poets, fictionists, and essayists born and/or based in Central Visayas — Cebu, Bohol, Negros Oriental, and Siquijor. Fellowships are available per genre — poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. (Applicants may apply for more than one genre.)
To be eligible, an applicant must (1) be born and/or based in any of the provinces of Central Visayas and (2) not have attended any regional and national writers’ workshops organized by reputable creative writing centers and institutes.
Entries (original and unpublished works) in Binisaya and/or English shall be composed of any of the following:
• For a Poetry fellowship: 4 poems (not more than 60 lines each); or
• For a Fiction fellowship: 2 short stories (2000 to 5000 words each) of any genre; or 1 novel chapter (3000 to 6000 words each) with a synopsis; or 3 flash fiction (500 to 1500 words each); or
• For a Creative Nonfiction fellowship: 2 works of creative nonfiction (2000 to 5000 words each) such as nonfiction memoir, personal essays, travel writing, or other hybridized forms; or 3 micro-essays (500 to 1500 words each).
The general theme for works to be submitted this year is on ‘places and placelessness’—literary pieces that discuss homelands, neighborhoods, place-attachment/place-making, diaspora, displacement, and others—but is not confined only to these themes.
This creative writing fellowship will include critiquing sessions, craft lectures, and other parallel activities to be facilitated by writers from the Libulan Queer Collective — poet-fictionist Jessrel E Gilbuena, poet-essayist Adonis Enricuso, and essayist-editor Alton Melvar Dapanas, with fictionist and editor R Joseph Dazo as the workshop director. Other local writers will also serve as guest panelists.
The Cebu Young Writers’ Studio aims to initiate a creative writing culture of mentorship and critiquing in the region and institutionalize an open training platform for beginners of the creative writing craft. It is envisioned to complement with the annual Bathalad-Kagis Creative Writing Workshop.
Accepted fellows will be provided with a certificate, lunch, and snacks. (There is no registration fee but fellows, if accepted, will shoulder their own transportation and accommodation expenses to and from the venue during the whole duration of the workshop.)
Electronic copies, in MS Word format, Garamond font 12, of the manuscript may be emailed to libulanqueercollective [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject Genre_CYWS (example, CNF_CYWS). The author's name should not appear on the manuscript. On the email's body, kindly put your full name, address (within Central Visayas), institutional affiliation (workplace and/or school), mobile number, and a short bio note (150-300 words in the third person).
Deadline for the submission of manuscripts is on 15 December 2017. All inquiries must be addressed to the workshop director through the indicated email address.
Senior high school/college teachers of Literature/Panitikan and Creative Writing/Malikhaing Pagsulat courses who wish to observe the sessions may send a letter of intent to the workshop director through the email.
The Libulan Queer Collective is the writers’ bloc behind the forthcoming Libulan: Binisaya Anthology of Queer Literature and the soon-to-be launched online literary journal Payag Habagatan: New Writings from the South.
Some movies stay with you. You leave the theater pondering perhaps, or your heart perhaps touched. Some are utter vexations to the spirit. Dean Devlin's Geostorm (2017) is the cinematic equivalent of a root canal gone awry. No, that's too kind. Geostorm is cow feces mixed with that hairball clogging your bathroom drainage, tossed together in a lovely salad, with pus dressing.
I have a bad feeling about this rain. It has been pouring for hours now. I just got home, my tricycle slicing through rivers I used to call streets to get me here. Just as I expected, the interiors of my apartment is swamped. But there is no use fussing over things; I tell myself to accept the flood waters calmly. My bed is a boat.