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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, February 02, 2007

entry arrow9:00 AM | Mom Edith and Her Stories

By the time most people have finished reading this post, the tribute for Dumaguete-based National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo -- which I had coordinated for Silliman University, UP Likhaan, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts -- will have already become part of my grand recollection of wonderful things. (And hopefully other people's too.)

The event, which was one of the highlights of the National Arts Month, honored the National Artist for her lifetime of words, creativity, and nurturance of several generations of Filipino writers in a program that featured testimonials from various local writers -- including Ernesto Superal Yee (whose testimonial was read by Mom Edith's granddaughter Rima Torrevillas-Seamans), Myrna Peña-Reyes, Bobby Flores Villasis, Andrea Gomez-Soluta, and Vim Nadera Jr. -- including several dances inspired by the writings of Dr. Tiempo, choreographed by Ronnie Mirabuena and Marie Veronique Berdin of Silliman University's Kahayag Dance Troupe.

It was a tribute that was only fitting for someone whose poems, novels, essays, and short stories have enriched Philippine literature -- and have basically put Dumaguete on the map of the literary imagination. It was a long time in coming, but in today's tribute, I am grateful that Dumaguete -- and Silliman University -- has finally come about to honor a native daughter. Although she was born a Gaddang in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya in 1919, Mom Edith is -- by choice -- an Oriental Negrense. She was already a movie actress in Manila by the age 18 (appearing in Nasaan Ka Irog, Ang Gagamba, Pugad ng Agila, and Hatol ng Mataas na Langit, for what was then Parlatone Pictures), but she made the ultimate move to Silliman University where, together with husband and fellow writer Edilberto, she became a teacher and honed her literary reputation. "I chose to come here," she once told me, "to Dumaguete."

After furthering their studies at the prestigious Iowa International Writers Workshop, both came back to Silliman and founded the National Writers Workshop in 1962. The workshop is the oldest creative writing workshop in Asia, and to date is still considered the "mother of all workshops" in the Philippines. Under the continuing guidance of Mom Edith, it has produced most of the luminaries that now make up Philippine literature.

For this timely tribute to her genius and influence, it was my pleasure to introduce a dance based on my favorite short story by Mom Edith, "The Black Monkey," which was one of the winners of the Palanca when the prize was first inaugurated in 1951.

I have always known that to read the stories of Mom Edith is to enter a world of quiet. The writer Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo says exactly the same thing in her overview of Mom's short fiction for The Edith Tiempo Reader (UP, 1999). From "Chambers of the Sea" to "Dark Joshua" to "The Dimensions of Fear" to "A Concept of the Primitive" to "The Black Monkey" -- we enter the small tempests in the quiet corners of a coastal village, or a small and sleepy provincial town, or a thick forest. In her stories, most of which have been collected in Abide, Joshua and Other Stories, which was first published in 1964, and in her five novels, Mom Edith renders her quiet scenes in her strength as a poet, always striving for effect by evoking the sharp image or the striking metaphor.

Hidalgo has said of these stories: "Nothing very much seems to be happening in these quiet little stories. But at the denouement, the reader realizes that everything has been moving inexorably toward this inevitable end. And at the heart of every tale is the protagonist, who, again, seems a rather ordinary type of person—simple, unprepossessing, even nondescript. But something about him or her engages and absorbs and compels. So that when we are shown 'what happens to him inside' (Tiempo's phrase) we care."

We care, for example, for the character of Marina in "The Black Monkey." She is a young wife caught in the tentacles of World War II, hiding with her husband and the families of other guerillas deep in the forest, away from the menace of Japanese soldiers. Our concern for her lies in the very fact that she has twisted her kneecap while fleeing from the Japanese, and becomes partially paralyzed -- making her a dangerous liability for the rest of the villagers.

Knowing this, she relents to living on her own in a makeshift hut hidden away on a precipice, which could only be negotiated by lowering a ladder into the river. The other villagers bring her food, and her husband visits, but for the most part, she is entirely helpless and alone -- surrounded only by trees and the screeching monkeys that live in them.

One particular black monkey begins terrorizing her, and in the animal she sees all of her fears manifested, including the fear of being discovered by an escaped Japanese soldier roaming the area. Her husband finally gives her a gun to kill the monkey -- bringing about her realization that only she, alone, could kill the monkey and rid her of her nightmares.

In the end, she does kill the monkey, and in so doing slays all her other fears.

According to Hidalgo, Marina is "perhaps the most impressive of Tiempo's female protagonists." And I agree. And maybe this is because I know Marina is really a fictional version of Mom Edith.

This is her story.

I remember my visits to Mom Edith's office in CAP Building when I was still quite new to the craft of writing, and in the middle of the morning she would regale me with stories of writers and writing, and of anecdotes from her interesting and colorful life. I felt that it was a privilege to be in that presence, and to be welcomed and nurtured as a writer as she had always done with generations of Filipino writers since the 1960s.

I must have been quite a listener because in her dedication to one of my copies of her books, she wrote: "For Ian, who likes to hear stories, not just to write them! Mom E." One of these stories she loved telling me was of her experience as a young wife in the jungles of Negros Oriental where most of Dumaguete hid when the Japanese invaded the island. She was Marina, and she lived Marina's nightmares and salvation -- including the specter of monkeys, and the education of firing a gun.

Beyond the autobiographical elements however, "The Black Monkey" works as a magnificent, tightly structured, and highly dramatic piece of fiction, because the character in the story is someone whom we finally truly care for, whose story becomes our own story, and whose denouement also brings about a kind of finality and truth in our lives.

Mom Edith's been a little weak lately, but at her age (she is 87 years old) that is only to be expected. Yet she continues to be prolific, easily shaming those of us who are still young but whose output are yet so meager. Now, there are plans to collect her early stories, even her children's fiction, for suitable publication. Then there's the personal anthology of the three Tiempo women currently in the burner, involving daughter Rowena Torrevillas and granddaughter Rima. She shows no sign of slowing down, and is still the doyen of Montemar, her residence in Sibulan town.

I will always be grateful for having known Mom Edith, and for the intimate and writerly circumstances that have allowed me to call her by such affectation. Thanks, Mom, for everything.

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