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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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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

entry arrow1:53 PM | Is the Pen Dry in Dumaguete? (Part 3)

It does not help, of course, that one of the saddest news I've received most recently is from Danah Fortunato of Village Bookstore -- that wonderful nook for Filipiniana literature over along Cimafranca Street -- who texted me that the bookstore was closing: "Ian, you're one of the first to know, we're closing shop. Maybe only until we find another place, maybe for good. Truth is, I wasn't able to spend enough time on it -- for years -- and everything suffered. I'm working on an alternative so there'll be books, even if I won't own it." Like her, I felt like an old trusted friend had died.

And always, after moments like this, it gets to me, this gnawing suspicion: Does Dumaguete even read? Is the pen indeed dry in the city? Because we can always argue about sustaining our generations of writers in the community -- but like what is true in the poem "Getting the Message" by Ateneo poet Vincenz Serrano: "A kiss is complete / only in another's mouth and tongue, like how / a writer needs a listener for the words / to be whole..." -- there will be no writers at all if there is equally no community of readers. Else, we will be like "the mad [who] talk / to themselves and set speech adrift in air / only to drown in the loneliness of no one / listening..." Ouch.

Sometimes I suspect the negative, when my students for example always seem to preface their book reviews for my literature classes with the constant (and increasingly irritating) confession that they do not read books, and certainly never novels. (What is sadder still is the realization that there seems to be a shade of delight or pride in this admission.) For the proud bannering of our distinction as the country's University Town, where are our bookstores? Does anybody even know we have a Public Library which has forever remained a sad shadow beside City Hall?

It also does not help that one of the young Dumaguete writers I have just mentioned, Cindy Mae Almazan -- the talented niece of poet Anthony Tan -- recently contacted me through my blog and left me this message: "Hi, Sir. This is Cindy. Somebody told me about [the article on Dumaguete writing.] Anyway, I think the pen is drying up in Dumaguete," and followed that pronouncement with a sad-looking smiley colored blue, as in distress -- the perfect summation for generic mortality.

I hastily wrote back: "No, it's not," and ended that brief rejoinder with another smiley -- all brightened up this time, and sporting the hopeful shade of yellow. Call that sheer missionary zeal from someone whose passion and community are being declared dinosaurs, but in the two weeks that have taken me to get my bearings on this issue I have increasingly come to believe that creative writing in Dumaguete is alive and well and kicking -- but like all things Dumaguete, it masks itself in the slowness of things, in a state of invisible but still pervasive presence that sometimes many people mistake for absence.

But this is hardly a uniquely Dumaguete problem. The young writer Ned Parfan has recently remarked this to me when he said, "I noted the same trend in Thomasian [UST] literary writing many times before. Notable writers here, I think, come and go in batches. The difference is the shifting to (or focusing on) the poetry genre. In the latest volume of Dapitan, our college department's version of Sands & Coral, I noted that gone are the glory days of fiction when F. Sionil Jose, Paz Latorena, and Wilfrido Nolledo brought pride to the university with their stories. Many agree that poetry has been the focus of Thomasian creative writing for many years now, producing only a handful of successful fictionists since the last decade. That would include Eric Melendez, Kit Kwe, and Pocholo Goitia."

In Silliman, the trend is the personal essay -- and hardly anyone calls that seriously literary, which may be part of the problem. The latest issue of S&C, edited by Misael Ondong, Cesar Ruiz Aquino, and Andrea Soluta, is devoted entirely to the personal essay, and has yet to see the light of the printers due to some unfortunate layout problems.

But what most people want as proof of creative writing life are images we borrow from too many Woody Allen movies -- the smoky camaraderie between writers and their coteries hatching plots and verses and dalliances between bottles of beer, the active churning out of printed things, the manic staging of many literary events, the sight of writers milling about in our cafes debating about things literary till a thousand sunsets go down. Many of these cliches do happen, mostly in metropolises like Manila where literary happenstances are immediately followed by drinking sessions at Penguin, or somewhere in Tomas Morato -- but to expect the same of Dumaguete is unfair. Things here just happen differently -- more subdued perhaps, like an Edith Tiempo demeanor, but nonetheless alive.

Still, we must realize that the pronouncement of death is always a commonplace practice. Hardly a year goes by when nobody laments the death of anything. Just a year after the invention of the movie camera in 1895, for example, the cultural pundits then had pronounced the death of cinema, calling it a fad that would fade away into the obscurities of entertainment footnotes. This is so much the same way similarly-inclined critics do with their "death of the novel" or "death of the short story" or "death of poetry" chants.

Everybody wants to be an undertaker, and it pays to bear caution that declarations like these should always be taken with a grain of salt. I've always taken these as nothing more than impassioned alarm calls for a return to the lovely old order.

What I probably need to do right now, to hopefully settle the debate once and for all, is to define what exactly makes a literary community like Dumaguete particularly dry. Is it the lack of resident writers? Is it the lack of workshops that can stimulate what we patronizingly call "budding writers"? Is it the lack of avenues for reading? Is it the lack of proper spaces for publication? Is it the lack of encouragement?

As for the question of resident writers, there is always Grand Dame herself, National Artist Edith Tiempo who -- even in her 80s -- continues to astonish us with her brilliance and her being extraordinarily prolific. At her age, she still commands presence as a working woman, this time away from the academe and settled with the more controlled atmosphere of her office in CAP. It is remarkable that she still continues to churn out literary tomes after another -- more recently a novel, The Builder, which is a murder-mystery set in Dumaguete City

Around her, there are Bobby Flores Villasis who keeps winning national literary contests (excerpt from the Philippines Free Press Literary Awardee "Elegies From Another Book" here), and Ernesto Superal Yee who has just published his novel Out of Doors (excerpt here). There is Mr. Aquino who was just recently a recipient of the SEAWrite Award given out by the Queen of Thailand. Three years ago, I helped him in birthing his personal anthology, Checkmeta, which was subsequently cited in the National Book Awards given out by the Manila Critics Circle. Miggy Ybanez will be publishing his poems with an American imprint. One of the city's youngest authors is Stacy Alcantara -- a former Miss Silliman and now a Mass Communication student in the same university -- whose fantasy book was recently published by Midtown. In Silliman, when there is time to do some writing beyond the grueling demands of academic work, teachers Sherro Lee Lagrimas does poetry on the side, Rebecca de la Torre some fiction, and Earl Jude Cleope some historical recordings. I am sure that many writer-teachers in Foundation University, Saint Paul University, and the Negros Oriental State University are also of the same bent. Jared Tirambulo, for example, continues to produce his poetry in Binisaya. (Silliman President Agustin Pulido used to write poetry, too, and had several of them published in old issues of the S&C.) About two years ago, a bunch of writers and literature enthusiasts -- including Mr. Yee, Mr. Villasis, Mr. Ondong, Jee-Yeon Park, Philip Van Peel, Bing Sumanoy, Jay Quevenco, Niccolo Vitug, and yours truly -- formed the Dumaguete Literary Arts group, which aims, among other things, to foster a sense of the literary in the community. (Note how our writing circle includes a Belgian and a Korean -- which is indicative of the expatriate culture in Dumaguete. How does one define Philippine literature in the Dumaguete context?) Our biggest concern now is to provide needed assistance to the National Writers Workshop -- but we have been hatching a lot of plans to jumpstart the sense of literature in the city, among them a survey of Negrense Cebuano literature which is a neglected part of our local literary heritage. And if we include in this brief survey all the other Dumaguete writers who now live somewhere else, we will be guilty of bursting the seams of this essay. Writers here are indeed very active -- and perhaps we can credit the silence about so much of these to the typical writerly repugnance for self-promotion.

Is it the lack of workshops? But there is always the National Writers Workshop every summer in Dumaguete, which Krip Yuson has called the Mother of All Workshops. Together with the Village Bookstore, Mr. Aquino also gives small creative writing workshops, mostly poetry for children. As recently as last year, the English Department of Silliman University, through the efforts of Mr. Vitug and Ms. Soluta, launched the First Personal Essay Writing Workshop -- a precursor of sorts to the First International Creative Non-Fiction Workshop held in parallel to the Dumaguete workshop, this time attended by fellows from the Iowa International Creative Writing Workshop, with Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas. And Dumaguete has always been a favorite spot for literary conferences. Three years ago, it hosted the British Council's annual creative writing conference, which brought in British writers Atima Srivastava and Hon Ying. And four years ago, it hosted the Japan Foundation's first conference on the teaching of film and literature, with the venerable Bienvenido Lumbera as guest speaker.

Is it the lack of avenues for reading? Village Bookstore may soon be gone and the other "bookstores" in the area may be forbidding places that do not attract the consummate book buyer at all -- but observe the casual swarm of people going to the used books section of Lee Plaza, and you get the feeling that there is an undercurrent of literary hunger going on. If only some plucky (and forward-looking) entrepreneur recognizes this...

Is it the lack of proper spaces for publication? There is always S&C, and the other local universities I'm sure have their own equivalents. But even with the lack of a proper journal for literary pursuits, the school papers published in the Dumaguete do take up the slack. The Monthly Paulinian, for example, publishes student poetry. Consider, too, the strange -- but edifying -- position the city holds with regards newspaper publishing. For a city this small, we do have an amazing surplus of local papers, with MetroPost at the helm (but of course), followed by Negros Chronicle, NegrosNews (which I once edited), Visayan Daily Star, Sun-Star Dumaguete, and three or four other papers that seem to follow a random sense of publishing frequency. We know that MetroPost, on occasion, publishes poetry -- and NegrosNews does provide space for Cebuano balak, which is a delight.

Is it the lack of encouragement? Of this, I would like to quote Mr. Parfan who texted me this query: "I just want to ask about the literary output in Dumaguete, like books by individual authors. I think it reflects enthusiasm when authors join and win in contests and publish their works. These signs marked a revival in UST."

I agree with him. When I first won the Palanca for the short story, for example, it was astonishing to find many of my writer-friends trying to join the competition the very next year. This year, several of my students -- perhaps buoyed by their teacher's success in competitions -- have told me they want to join the Palanca this year. One of them, Tara de Leon, went on to join the PBBY-Alcala Illustrators Prize, to illustrate my children's book Rosario and the Stories, which recently garnered Honorable Mention in the PBBY-Salanga Writers Prize. Many people say one should not write for awards -- but I think that's what competition losers always say to cover their disappointment. (Haha!) Competitions, Dean Alfar once said, should not be the be-all for one's literary output, but it does give a necessary kick in our literary efforts. "Joining competitions keeps us on our writing toes," Dean has said. And also pushes other budding writers to try their luck.

It is in book publication that we Dumaguete writers seem to be perpetually in limbo. Only a handful here have books to their names, which points to a real literary drought in terms of gathering together an impressive local bibliography. A visit to the Sillimaniana section of the university library yields only a small cabinet of written efforts. I sometimes wish that Silliman Press will go beyond its functional status as mere printer, and become a stalwart vanguard of Philippine publishing, the way it is in the University of the Philippines, De La Salle, Ateneo, UST, FEU, and even the University of San Agustin in Iloilo.

Given all these, there is really no concrete reason to put Dumaguete creative writing in its coffin just yet.

Or is it just every generation's inherently selfish claim that theirs is always the worse in the continuing tradition, that the past is always necessarily brighter? If that is true, what may be more dangerous is one's constant measuring up to the past that will paralyze us. I guess the thing to do then is for everybody, all the Rodrigo Bolivars in the world, to start making things matter, to shake things up, to realize that all efforts may not necessarily always begin with a bang but that constancy and hard work will somehow pay off in the long run.

I would like to end this essay by quoting Dominique Cimafranca, who had some things to say after last week's installment of this series. "I was thinking about this...and three things came to mind, though these don't necessarily point to the heart of the matter.

"First, we're suffering from narrow overspecialization. This is not an observation on Dumaguete alone but on Philippine society as a whole. Even Rodrigo falls prey to this, I think. Literature should not be a specialized endeavor limited to AB English or Mass Com, but should be encouraged among everybody, nursing students included. Alas, the professionals have edged out the amateurs (and if we go back to the root of 'amateur,' it really means someone who does it for love).

"Second, we need to move with the times. Literature should no longer be limited to the printed word on dead-tree. Instead, literature should begin to explore other media, such as comics, the hyperstory, and even film. As it stands, the way we tell our stories and even the stories that we tell have become stultified.

"Last, together with [the previous] point, we should explore the means by which writers can get compensated for their work. Case in point: someone from Guimaras writing erotica and earning $200 per month on AdSense. Love is one thing, and money is another."

I'd love to expound on these things more, but given the length of this post, it will have to be for another time.

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