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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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Thursday, September 21, 2006

entry arrow12:02 PM | A Man Called Dad

In memory of Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo on his tenth death anniversary



I never met the man, had only seen him on rare occasions, and always from a distance. The last time I saw him, it was in 1996, which was the year he died; his hair was already graying around the edges, but his cadence was still strong and precise despite his age. His face still bore a striking resemblance to the actor Gregory Peck.

"That's Edilberto Tiempo, the writer," somebody once pointed him out to me in Silliman Campus -- but of course I already knew him, and did not need an introduction. (Approaching him was totally another matter. For how do mere mortals approach gods and without trepidation? I was just a young man then, my literary ambitions still budding and virtually non-existent. All I had to show for my fiction was a strange tale about an unfortunate man named King Kong, and a few other misfires that consisted of my sophomoric attempts at storytelling. I felt -- wrongly -- that I had no right to approach The Man.)

I knew him, as every Sillimanian worth their salt knows him. There was that reputation, of course -- beloved literature and creative writing teacher, founder of the premier summer creative writing workshop in Asia, and multi-awarded storyteller. There was also that strong and angular face, made iconic from all the black and white portraits of him emblazoned on the dust jackets and back covers of books I'd read. Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo, I knew, was and still is a giant in Philippine literature.

When I was a boy -- around that peculiar age when one began discovering the adventures of the printed word via the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew -- I came across an old battered copy of A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories in our old rented house in Tubod. It must have been owned by one of my brothers, or one of their friends who used to frequent our house. It was a slim book, and I took to it one afternoon in the confines of the bedroom I shared with my brothers. I had just congratulated myself for finishing my first "real" novel, Peter Benchley's Jaws, but voracious readers would know of that sudden pang of hunger that could strike upon the turning of the last page of a riveting book: there was that internal clamor for the next reading fare, and A Stream at Dalton Pass just happened to be handy.

That book, to the best of my memories, is the first story collection by a Filipino author I've ever come across and read, which must have prepared me for my warm reception to the stories of Lakambini Sitoy and Nick Joaquin later on. It did not matter to me that this was not a work straight off some foreign (read: American) imprint, always an important consideration in a culture steeped in a colonial stranglehold. At ten years old, however, one does not readily make the distinctions we come to wield as weapons in the name of "discriminating taste," like when we do in adolescence, and particularly in adult life -- which often lead to relegating even the best of Philippine literature into the netherworld called Filipiniana, unread and unexamined.

For the boy that I was then, there were only stories. The story was what mattered most.

Doc Ed's "The Witch" was an early favorite. In that story, Minggay Awok -- the witch in a small Leyte town -- loomed large in my young imagination as a perfect manifestation of a very native concept of evil, and yet the story resonated even in my young mind. I felt for Minggay, which seemed an extraordinary consideration at that time.

A few weeks before Doc Ed passed away, the poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino informed Dinah Rose Baseleres and I that Doc Ed wanted to meet us, ostensibly to talk shop. Dinah and I were perhaps the most active campus writers in Silliman in the mid-1990s, coming in the heels of Anne-Marie Jennifer Eligio, Timothy Montes, Nino Soria de Veyra, Victor Padilla, and Shelfa Alojamiento who came before us. (That was the last literary wave for Silliman University -- which culminated in Jean Claire Dy and myself being granted fellowships to the National Writers Workshop, the last Sillimanians to make the official cut.) Upon being given the invitation, I thought: "For what? Certainly not for my stories -- they're extremely bad, as in baduy." Dinah must have felt the same way, because we never took up the invitation, both of us straddled with crippling insecurity for us to even consider facing The Man, and talking about creative writing with him.

When he died a few days later, bound with the sadness I felt -- which was strange, for I hadn't even met Doc Ed personally -- was a strong sense of regret. For how does one pass up an opportunity to meet with a literary giant? The answer: With utmost stupidity. It was a learning experience.

Sometimes I wish I had grabbed that chance to know him, even if only for a brief moment, so that I too could be part of that elite brood of Filipino writers -- which would include the likes of Susan Lara, Marjorie Evasco, Merlie Alunan, Anthony Tan, Bing Sitoy, Dean Francis Alfar, Timothy Montes, Sarge Lacuesta, Jose Wendell Capili, Gemino H. Abad, Jaime An Lim, J. Neil C. Garcia, D.M. Reyes, Bobby Flores-Villasis, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Danton Remoto, Eileen Tabios, Krip Yuson, Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez, and many others -- who knew him as mentor, and who taught them not just the basics of the writing craft, but also a way of seeing the world.

From the stories of him that I've heard since then, Doc Ed came off as an exacting critic who valued the story more than anything else -- beyond literary fads, disconcerting ideology, and empty purple prose. But that he was also a gentle soul. "Giving" is the adjective most people describe him with, enough so that, together with his wife the National Artist for Literature whom we know as "Mom Edith," Doc Ed was for many, simply "Dad."

In the Philippine literary circle, the Tiempo writing brood -- which consists of many of the best in this side of the literary world -- is the only "literary family" in the Philippines that has withstood time. Doc Ed remains the shepherd of this illustrious flock. This week, in celebration of his tenth death anniversary, Susan Lara sent me an email with an article that she wrote for Sunday Inquirer Magazine immediately after he died.

In this essay, she articulated the sense of grief that descended on much of Philippine literati when the first of the giants -- to follow Doc Ed in death were NVM Gonzalez, Wilfrido Nolledo, Francisco Arcellana, and Nick Joaquin -- succumbed to the dying of the light. Here is the entire essay:

The earthshaking news about Edilberto K. Tiempo, whom we lovingly call Dad, came to me from Dumaguete less than four hours after he drew his last breath. I insist on the word "earthshaking," although it would make Dad squirm. Too much, he would say: in literature, as in life, he had always taught us to practice restraint. But "heartbreaking," though also accurate, would probably be dismissed by him as "too soft." "Gut-wrenching" is not quite precise, either; and Dad had also taught us precision. Yes, Dad's death shook our world, hurling us into a void, our hands flinging about for a lifeline, feet casting about for some solid ground to stand on.

Mom Edith's assistant, Isabel, tried to break the news gently. "I have bad news, Ma'am," she said, "and I don't know how to begin." Immediately I knew, and at the same time didn't want to know. Impossible, I said, not caring that I sounded irrational. Dad intended to live to witness the turn of the century, and he had enough strength and will to make that happen. Only last summer, he said he had so much to live for. And we thought we would see him again that day in a matter of hours: the Manila Critics Circle's National Book Awards, for which Dad was a finalist, were to be given that afternoon. I was tempted to say, "I am not sufficiently prepared for the ending -- I cannot accept it," words he often said, when a story he was discussing could have ended differently.

Mark Twain once wondered how a person, "all unprepared, can receive a thunder stroke like that, and live."

The mind's mysterious way of coping kept me going that day. There was, mercifully, almost no time for self-pity. I dreaded breaking the news to friends in Manila who, nevertheless, had to know: Dad's good friend Franz Arcellana, and adopted children Krip Yuson, Marj Evasco, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Bimboy Penaranda, Ricky de Ungria, Ophie Dimalanta and Ruel de Vera, who all had to quickly recover from shock, because many others had to be told. I caught Jun Dumdum at work and asked him to break the news to writers in Cebu.

Then we started to wonder if someone was with Mom: Rowena and Don were in Iowa. It turned out that even friends in Dumaguete still didn't know: Krip stunned Cesar Aquino with the news; I called Ernie Yee, who left unfinished business at the court and rushed to Mom's side. Tim and Rhoda Montes, and Bobby Villasis followed. When Marj checked on Mom later that morning, she seemed to be holding up well, and Ernie was right there: he had just prepared Dad's clothes and was shining Dad's shoes.

It was difficult for other people to understand why and how our lives could be turned upside down by the death of a teacher. Marj, Danny Reyes, Wendell Capili and I dropped everything -- speeches, classes, newspaper work, meetings -- and took the first available flight to Dumaguete to be with Mom. Parents, bosses, clients, colleagues and students could only look at us in utter bewilderment as we tried to explain why it was important for us to be there.

In Dumaguete, Dad gifted us with that characteristic half-smile. In the past that half-smile was usually accompanied by eyes that twinkled, followed by a one-liner. We missed the twinkling eyes, but all the same we almost expected him to say something like, "You look ready for mischief!" How like Dad, to have managed that our first sight of him should be reassuring. All during the wake until after the burial, Dad's many children gathered and walked with him in a world built with imagination and memory.

Remembering is always a tricky business. William Zinsser considered memory as one of the most powerful of writers' tools, but also one of the most unreliable. One's remembered truth often differs from another's. But about Dad there can be no disagreement among us: he is a giant in Philippine literature, a devoted mentor, an exacting critic, a very loving, giving person.

He and Mom taught us discipline by example. Back in the days when they lived in the Amigo house, he would go to their study at the annex in the early evening and write. On his way back to the house around two o'clock in the morning, he would meet Mom Edith, going to the annex to do her own writing. His tremendous creative energy and that remarkable discipline had produced more than twenty books -- novels, literary essays, short stories.

As a critic he was upfront and did not bother to pull his punches. He would sometimes begin a session with "The problem with this story is...," and Mom would promptly stop him with "The good points first, Dad." During my first summer workshop, I heard him say, "You know, there is a difference between writing a short story and simply telling a story. This is not a short story." I have since heard many variations on that familiar theme: "I'm sorry to say that this is not a short story. It is only an articulation of grief, an essay on loss and change." One summer he was particularly irascible, and said, "This is not a short story, period," then looked out the window and refused to be drawn into any further discussion.

Even after the workshop, when we're back at our writing desks, it is his voice that we hear when we try to manipulate our reader: "Do away with manipulation; use the peripheral approach"; when we try to cloak a weak story with pretty words: "Don't try to hoodwink me with pseudo-poetic language!"; when we tend to get lazy: "The writer must take care of everything. He must achieve resonance, a multiplying of meaning."

When I met him 17 summers ago, he had already reached retirement age. But there was absolutely nothing in him that hinted at retirement. He was sprightly, walking up the mountain in Valencia to reach their "Aerie nest," putting us to shame because we were lagging far behind him, huffing and puffing. Until the day before his death, he was in top form.

He loved surprises, especially when he was the one giving them. During my first summer there as a fellow, he would pay us surprise visits at the Alumni Hall. He would say, "Are you behaving well?" and would look disappointed if we said yes. Like all fictionists, he loved to gossip: he would ask who was in love with whom, or who were fighting over whom, and that would start him reminiscing about fellows in the past who wooed others besides the Muse while attending the workshop. To Cesar Aquino's perpetual discomfiture, one of Dad's favorite anecdotes was how Cesar fell into the Tiempos' lotus pond as he tried to pick a flower for a lovely workshopper. Another favorite story was about Mauro Avena, who forgot he couldn't swim and jumped off a boat, feet first, into the sea, to join Pris McIntyre, a skillful scuba diver. As Dad often related with great relish, Pris rescued Mauro, who survived to write more prize-winning plays.

I learned only a year after we met that he was a stern and caring father. By then, Rowena and I had discovered the many things we had in common, the most amazing and inexplicable being our identical penmanship. We had begun to suspect we were twin sisters in a previous life, and Mom once said "I believe it was under a special moon that I 'begot' you, Sue." Another year later, Rowena's and Lem's daughter Rima became my godchild. I had joined the Tiempos' growing brood, whom they nurtured and worried over. Dad would get distraught over any disturbing news about his adopted daughters and sons: he worried when our marriages were breaking up; and worried some more when new relationships were shaping up.

We worried about him, too. He gave us a big scare when he had a heart attack five years ago. Though he quickly recovered, he had slowed down a bit during workshops, attending only the afternoon sessions on fiction. He said it was to give himself more time to rest. But we suspect it was also to keep him and Mom from arguing too much. That deprived the fellows and panelists of their spectacular annual showdown over an infelicitous word or ambiguous phrase. Watching Dad and Mom in a verbal tussle used to be our main spectator sport in summer.

Students who made good were his constant source of pride. At the start of every workshop, he would introduce us as former fellows who had come back as panelists. It seemed to fascinate him no end that the callow, insecure fellows who were at the receiving end of criticism years ago were now by his side, evaluating younger writers' works. Last summer, Dad missed an extremely subtle suggestion of a sexual relationship between two fictional characters. When Marj and I pointed it out, his jaw dropped. "My goodness this is a classic example of students outdoing their teacher!" he said, and gave us what he meant to be a pat on the back (a hearty slap, really).

I find it hard to imagine him in his childhood, but I remember Rowena's story about how Dad as a little boy would go from house to house at Christmas in his small hometown in Leyte. In those days all the children made noise out of tin cans, and the ones who created the loudest noise got the most goodies from the neighbors, who probably simply wanted them to shut up. Dad had his own noisemakers, too, but they weren't very noisy, so he came home somewhat empty-handed.

He was never noisy, our Dad, which is probably one reason he went home last month somewhat empty-handed, too. But he had a power every rich man would envy: he touched the lives of hundreds of writers, thousands of students, millions of readers here and abroad.

He touched the life of a Silliman engineering student named Alfay*, who had read all his works, but had never seen him, didn't know what he looked like. He just happened to be passing by the Chapel of the Evangel one evening during the vigil, and saw on the white board the name of the author whose works he had read and admired. He went in, said a prayer for Dad, sat quietly amidst Dad's former students holding vigil and telling stories, and perhaps tried to believe that God in His own good time would make plain to him why he was not allowed to meet his favorite novelist in this life.

Dad touched the life of an old mountain woman named Simeona, who once dragged a pine tree from the mountains of Valencia, all the way down the 16 kilometers of bumpy road and dusty highway, just so Rowena could have the Christmas tree she wished for. Simeona came to the wake, her lined face dark with grief, exotic mountain flowers wilting in her hands.

And of course the writers, who flew or sailed home to Dumaguete from all parts of the country to say goodbye to Dad, among them Krip Yuson, Domini Torrevillas, Grace Monte de Ramos, Butch Dalisay, Butch Macansantos, Anthony Tan, Linda Alburo, Merlie Alunan Wenceslao, George Ramos, Bing Sitoy and Alan Larot. The "youngest" children, Joy Cruz, Tara Sering and Kris Lacaba, went to represent the latest batch of workshoppers.

We were all there to gaze at him one last time; we all saw him being lowered to the ground. But it will take much more than that to persuade us that he is gone. C.S. Lewis wrote about "the ubiquitous presence of a dead man" of whom one is constantly reminded by almost everything that happens. I know that in the coming weeks, months, even years, maybe as long as I live, I will always have the impulse to call Dad when I read a book I know he would love, or when a story I'm working on is giving me a difficult time, or when I simply want to hear his laughter.

One story he enjoyed enormously was about Paderewski, who, after an intermission in one of his performances, went back on stage to find a little boy at the piano innocently playing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

Much to the surprise of the audience, the pianist motioned the boy to remain where he was. "Don't quit," he whispered, "Keep going."

Leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began playing the bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side, encircling the child, to add a running obbligato. The old master guided the young boy through the end of that piece, and together they held the audience spellbound. Dad had done precisely that to hundreds of young writers.

Like most people who lived full and meaningful lives, Dad envisioned his life in paradise as pretty much like his life on earth. "I'd still be listening to Beethoven," he said, "I'd still be teaching literature." And, we are quite sure, he'd still be leaning over, enfolding us, saying "Don't quit. Keep going."


Once I told Susan that sometimes I feel like I simply have no right to call Doc Ed "Dad," the way his writing children do without batting an eyelash.

"I never really knew him," I said.

"Well then, think of yourself as his literary grandchild," she replied. "He's still very much 'Dad,' even to you."

That has always distinguished Dumaguete's legacy to the Philippine literature: a connection of hearts, a family. Here's to you then, Dad. Even in death, your gifts continue to flower.

In behalf of your literary grandchildren, those of us who never had the privilege of knowing you -- Joel Toledo, Ronald Baytan, Gad S. Lim, Frances Ng, Sandra Nicole Roldan, Ronald Villavelez, Raymund Magno Garlitos, Larry Ypil, Lilledeshan Bose, Carlomar Arcangel Daoana, Rebecca Khan, Libay Linsangan Cantor, Indira Endaya, Mayo Uno Martin, Allan Popa, Bernice Roldan, Isolde Amante, Vincenz Serrano, Jean Claire Dy, Marby Villaceran, Janet Villa, Anna Bernaldo, Alfonso Dacanay, Jeneen Garcia, Paul de Guzman, BJ Patino, Peter Mayshle, Baryon Tensor Posadas, Naya Valdellon, Angelo Suarez, Allan Pastrana, Mookie Katigbak, Maryanne Moll, Daryll Jane Delgado, Vincent Coscolluela, Ken Ishikawa, Anna Felicia Sanchez, Mark Anthony Cayanan, Rosmon Tuazon, Niccolo Vitug, Kit Kwe, Carljoe Javier, Gabriela Lee, Mitzie Correa, Glenn Maboloc, James Neish, Ginny Mata, John Bengan, Faye Ilogon, Hedwig de Leon, Rommel Oribe, Marie La Vina, Myrza Sison, Ned Parfan, Rica Bolipata-Santos, Charisse Paderna, Anina Abola, Alfredo B. Diaz, Virginia Villanueva, Michellan Sarile, Patricia Evangelista, Ana Escalante Neri, Andrea Teran, Darwin Chiong, Douglas Candano, Dominique Cimafranca, Ino Habana, and many others, we would like to say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

* Alfay Vintola was one of my best friends in high school

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