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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, March 31, 2006

entry arrow12:19 AM | Is the Pen Dry in Dumaguete? (Part 2)

Second of Three Parts

What shocks most people about the proposition that Dumaguete seems to have "abandoned" its rarified position as a city of writers springs from a knowledge of history. The Palanca-winning author Dean Francis Alfar -- whose novel Salamanca is being released by Ateneo Press this April 1 -- for instance sends me this message after the last post: "I, for one, am startled by this. I was always under the assumption that there was a vibrant writing culture in Dumaguete. I mean, how can there not? Mom [Edith] Tiempo is there, you are there, writers live there. It's very distressing...."

It's very distressing, indeed, if the case is in fact true. Dumaguete after all has significantly made its mark on our literary culture being the home of two National Artists -- Edith Tiempo for literature, and Eddie Romero for film. It was in this sleepy seaside town where one of the earliest literary ferments went on, starting with The Sillimanian, perhaps the oldest student paper in the country which later on produced one of the earliest literary journals, Sands & Coral. In the 1950s, Sillimanian writers were publishing more frequently in national papers and magazines than any other campus-based writers in the country -- a feat, given the distance between Manila and Negros Oriental. In 1962, Dumaguete became home of the oldest (and still running) creative writing workshop in Asia, patterned after the Iowa workshop which Edilberto and Edith Tiempo attended in the 1930s. A cursory look at the list of fellows who have trained or paneled in the workshop is a proverbial Who's Who of Philippine letters -- from Kerima Polotan to Lakambini Sitoy, from Krip Yuson to Angelo Suarez, from Nick Joaquin to Conrado de Quiros.

I've written something about this in the Philippine Daily Inquirer once, where I said -- with more than a hint of native pride:

Perhaps what makes the Dumaguete workshop different from others is history. Dumaguete is the "x" on the map of the Philippine literary imagination. In this place, the acacia trees run, the surf dances, the air is heavy with sepia memories, life is recalcitrant to change. It is a friendly place for the pen: To be a writer in the Philippines is to be, at heart, a Dumagueteno.

Philippine literature has lain claim to a mythic Dumaguete -- the same literary sense of geography that embraces Manuel Arguilla's Nagrebcan, Carlos Aureus' Naga, Anthony Tan's Muddas, Nick Joaquin's Old Manila, and NVM Gonzalez's Romblon. [Perhaps you can add to this list, F. Sionil Jose's Cabugawan.] But while each of these places is mythologized in one writer's dream of words, Dumaguete is borne on more than one pen, and has colonized more than one imagination.

Dumaguete is home to Edith Tiempo, and her late husband, 'Doc' Edilberto K. Tiempo. Many of us call her 'Mom,' and every summer, the Philippine literary world knocks on Mom Edith's doors to take part in the oldest creative writing workshop in Asia. The quiet appeal of Dumaguete has made its way into the magic pages of books, journals, and literary magazines, immortalized in countless stories, poems, and essays. The authors we read have been through here, walked on these streets, and wrote sonnets to the sunrise off the Boulevard.

Given that, Rodrigo's complaint may seem to be a shock to the system, a slap perhaps to our continued "reverie" of the good old glory days.

I complained of this once as well, but I remember an exact moment four years ago when I decided not to entertain such thoughts anymore.

That time, the last of my writing mentors -- the brilliant Ceres Pioquinto -- had packed her bags to leave for Germany, and I felt this stinging hollow inside, a residual memory of being a child and my mother had left me alone in the house while she went to find bread to sustain us. My writing teacher Timothy Montes had already transferred to Davao to teach in U.P. Mindanao, with Nino de Veyra and the rest of my literary barkada in tow. There was no one to talk to -- I only had rare mornings with Mom Edith in her office or in Montemar, where we'd usually talk about the past when everything else seemed livelier, and more colorful. That increased my sense of being without anchor some more. Talk about being a writer and being alone in the city without a community of your own. I had began cajoling Bing Sitoy, Marjorie Evasco, Anthony Tan, and Jaime An Lim to return "home" to Dumaguete as soon as possible, even reminding Jimmy (before he took FEU by storm) that he still had his old house somewhere in purok Bunao -- and they assured me somehow that one day they would. "One day we will." That seemed to be the overriding theme in the lives of Dumaguete writers -- all of them somewhere else.

Finally, I told myself that a sense of the writing life adrift should not be the way to be. That while many of the Dumaguete writers I know may no longer be "home," I still had my summers of writers to look forward to. Every year in May, you see, Dumaguete virtually throbs with verse-makers and story-weavers from all over the country. May is Writers Month here, an orgy of letters and beer and laughter and escapades to Casaroro or Siquijor. And somehow that seemed enough.

Sometimes I credit my newfound nonchalance to the fact that I have always considered such argument -- that Dumaguete writing is a dry riverbed -- debatable at most. This has always been an old, old complaint. In the early days of the Sands & Coral, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, what was singularly the foremost complaint by its editors were their predictable lamentations that it was getting harder and harder to harvest literary efforts from the community for the annual issue. And this was during a time when Silliman had such formidable literature teachers as Dolores and Rodrigo Feria, David V. Quemada, Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, Albert Faurot, and Ricaredo Demetillo, and could boast of such campus writers as Aida Rivera-Ford, Cesar J. Amigo, Claro R. Ceniza, Reuben R. Canoy, Lugum Uka (one of the earliest Moslem writers in English), James M. Matheson, Leticia N. Dizon, Kenneth R. Woods, Maria Luisa E. Centena, Graciano H. Arinday Jr., Jose Montebon Sr., and Carminia Anonuevo Yaptenco.

Sands & Coral has always been the primary pulse for everything creative in Dumaguete, gathering together the works of writers (and artists) not just from Silliman University, but from other local schools as well. Foundation University has always been well-represented in S&C through the masterful poetry of multi-Palanca awardee Artemio Tadena and wife Gemma Racoma, and St. Paul University (the first Paulinian institution in the country) has always had the fiction of Bobby Flores Villasis.

The dry spells in the long history of S&C -- in the 1980s, for example -- seem to me to be paradoxical to the number of writers actively writing in campus of that time. In the 80s, Vim Nadera, Dinah Roma, Vicente Soria de Veyra and others were the stalwarts of the local writing scene -- but their efforts can be read only in one issue of the journal edited by Nino de Veyra, a rare issue from the desert of the 80s. That decade proved to be most turbulent for Dumaguete literature, which finally broke out to dismaying proportions in the much-lamented Tiempo-Deriada debacle that eventually saw the separation of the National Writers Workshop from Silliman.

Timothy Montes noted the end of things then. In his article "Silliman in the Eighties: Of That Time, Second Person," published in the Silliman Centennial edition of S&C, he wrote of coming to the university as a freshman, and learning to navigate the divides of the literary establishment here:

Unfortunately, you have also arrived at the tail-end of Silliman's literary golden age. The famous Tiempo-Deriada war is raging.

When you enroll in English 12, you read with a certain pride the bulletin board of the English Department announcing that Leoncio Deriada and Rowena Torrevillas have won the top Palanca awards. That year the school is featured in Asiaweek because two of the Tiempo students won the short story contest sponsored by the magazine. Silliman is touted as a center of excellence in literary writing in Asia....

One morning, on your way to biology class, you meet Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas on the second floor of Science Complex. You gaze at the goddess as she adjusts the strap of her high-heel shoes, straightens up without looking at the students walking past her, and walks on with that regal bearing, leaving a strong scent of perfume in her wake. (A few years later, when you first read Arguilla's "How My Brother Leon Brought Home A Wife," you will associate 'the fragrance of her was like a morning when papayas are in bloom' with Rowena walking by. The nose, indeed, has its own memory.)

Edilberto Tiempo, Vice President for Academic Affairs, sleeps during convocations. As an impressionable young man, you think his narcolepsy is a sign of genius.

Leo Deriada, with a string of Palancas to his name, is chairman of the English Department. During the second sem enrollment, you accompany a friend to the English Department to inquire about your English 11 grades. The famous writer himself is behind the window dispensing grades. "I'm sorry, you flunked," he casually says to your friend, who breaks down in tears. When your turn comes, you edge over to the window to get a better look at him: curly hair, furrows on the forehead. He calls out your name as he nonchalantly scans the grading sheets. Then, in exaggerated tones which sound almost sarcastic, he says "Congratulations! You got an A minus." (Later, after years of teaching, you will often catch yourself sounding that way, too. Academic exhaustion, you realize. Not literary sarcasm.)

Edith Tiempo is dean of the Graduate School. Everyday you see the famous red car waiting for her outside Katipunan Hall. One time your teacher in Philippine literature assigns you to write a critical interpretation of Nick Joaquin's The Woman Who Had Two Navels. You go to the grad school library to plagiarize a thesis on your assigned topic -- and Mrs. Tiempo, followed by her masteral students, enters the room and holds a class right there. You try to disappear into a corner, sinking into a chair while reading a critical analysis of Joaquin's women characters, half-listening to Mrs. Tiempo talk about the history of the English language. You wonder how such a gentle-spoken old woman could be so revered by so many people. (Later, when she becomes your teacher in poetry, you will understand the Tiempo magic.)

Those descriptions of the everyday in Silliman can make you shiver, if you know your Philippine literature. But take note of Tim's use of the word "tail-end" to preface everything else.

In the mid-1990s, there was a revival of sorts in the writing scene. With Tim Montes, Andrea Soluta, and Cesar Ruiz Aquino in the helm of things literary, local writers emerged from the shadows and stunned Dumaguete with poems and short stories that were audacious and masterful. This group included Dinah Baseleres, Shelfa Alojamiento, Anne-Marie Jennifer Eligio, Gracchus Arinday, Douglas Crispino, Eva Rose Repollo, Sherro Lee Lagrimas, Noel Villalba, Victor Padilla, and Jean Claire Dy -- and perhaps even me, although I was never really part of any writing group, preferring a world all my own. I was weird that way, and never thought of myself as a creative writer then. I remember Shelfa approaching me in the Weekly Sillimanian office in 1996, asking me if I could take over the editorship of S&C. The invitation amused me to no end, and I refused -- although I did edit S&C finally in 2002.

When we all graduated, there seemed to be no one left in Silliman (or Dumaguete) to carry on the literary torch. There was no one ambitious enough to carry on with the S&C either, an enterprise that does require an abundance of ambition, and hours of free time (or loads of sheer madness). When I first became a teacher, I poured over the leaden composition of students, looking for that proverbial gem in the haystack -- often to disheartening realization. The collegiate Weekly Sillimanian -- perhaps mismanaged by the top brass assigned to look over publications -- gradually became a high school rag, its issues given to concerns like "Love and the College Student." The make-up of the student population had changed by then because of increasing tuition -- and everything else seemed geared not to the pursuit of enlightenment or liberal education, but towards a brand of "practicality." Which meant: nursing. There was a time when no one enrolled in any other course except Nursing. The English program once only had three students, and Chemistry none. Nursing, thousands. Art, the wise ones always say, is the first thing sacrificed when belt-tightening begins.

But is creative writing really dead in Dumaguete? Not in the very least. Everything goes through cycles, and all great institutions have undergone a merry-go-round of fortunes in their histories. Already, I see a resurgence in the quality of student writing, and mark my words, these names will ring bells in the future. Michelle Eve de Guzman reminds me of the young Bing Sitoy. Zara Dy writes creative non-fiction, usually about Spanish hacenderos, with astonishingly rich details, and humor. Anna Casiding's feminist poetry scintillates. Miggy Unabia, Anthony Odtohan, Robert Jed Malayang, Cindy Mae Almazan, Lorraine Evasco, and Marianne Tapales show a fierce control in their prose that marks them as writing old souls. And there are others.

(To be continued...)

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