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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, June 06, 2014

entry arrow10:58 PM | Cities of Literature

Each one of us has a crazy dream. To climb Mount Everest, for example, or to write a complicated symphony. Or to bake the world’s largest pizza, if that’s more your thing. In my quiet moments, when I ponder about the things I have written—or plan to write—I think about how wonderful it would be to write a good YA novel, in the vein of The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Fault in Our Stars, but with a Filipino context and sensibility, something I have yet to really see from a Philippine author.

I have been writing for most of my life, and so it is not exactly out of left field for me to dream of big things that are literary. What is a little bit audacious, however, is an even bigger dream: to make Dumaguete a UNESCO City of Literature. This is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, which it launched in 2004, to answer what it perceived to be a need to foster appreciation for cultural diversity around the world. The aim is to “promote the social, economic and cultural development of cities in both the developed and the developing world,” through literature, music, film, media, gastronomy, crafts and folk art, and design.

To be approved as a City of Literature, cities must satisfy a number of criteria that mark its affinity to the written word, where literature must be seen to play an important role in city life: this includes the quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city; the quality and quantity of educational programs focusing on domestic or foreign literature in schools at all levels; the hosting literary events and festivals which promote domestic and foreign literature; the existence of libraries, bookstores, and public or private cultural centers which preserve, promote, and disseminate domestic and foreign literature; the involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature; and an active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products. A tall order—but the benefits of being accorded the honor are huge.

To date, there are only seven Cities of Literature, which include Edinburgh, Scotland (2004), Melbourne, Australia (2008), Dublin, Ireland (2010), Reykjavík, Iceland (2011), Norwich, England (2012), and Kraków, Poland (2013).

In November 2008, Iowa City in Iowa, U.S.A. became the third city in the world to be declared by the UNESCO as an official City of Literature. Its Creative Cities Network program cites that “[s]ince 1955, graduates and faculty of the University of Iowa have won more than 25 Pulitzer Prizes in literature. Iowa City has been home to such acclaimed authors as Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And the world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the world’s first Master of Fine Arts degree program in creative writing...”

I am specific about my mention of Iowa City as a City of Literature, because halfway around the world, in the heart of the Visayas, Dumaguete is very much Iowa City’s literary twin. Its inclusion in the ranks of these literary cities could prove to be a portal with which we can lay claim to the same distinction.

The writer Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas, a native of Dumaguete and a current resident of Iowa City once called the latter her “blonde Dumaguete.” Indeed, both share between them a wealth of literary developments that have lasted more than sixty years. “In 1946,” she once wrote, “my father [Edilberto K. Tiempo] was offered a scholarship by the Presbyterian Board of Missions, enabling him to do graduate work in the United States, at Stanford. He was readying himself for the scholarly regimen of the classics, and doing a refresher course in Latin, among his preparations, when my father was asked what area he wanted to specialize in at Stanford. ‘Creative writing,’ he said. ‘There are a number of novels I am going to write, and I need to know if I’m writing them effectively and well.’

“’Oh,’ the Presbyterian Board officer told him, ‘then there’s only one place for you to go. Iowa.’ Dad had to look up Iowa in the encyclopedia, and he was a bit puzzled at what he read. ‘Isn’t that where...they grow corn?’”

Iowa, right smack in the cornfields and silos of the American Midwest, indeed grew corn. But Dr. E.K. Tiempo was soon to learn there was a man there. It was a poet named Paul Engle, and he ran what was and still is considered the best creative writing workshop in the world: the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. “And that is how my Dad,” Rowena Torrevillas continued, “took a freighter across the Pacific, then a train halfway across the continent from San Francisco to Iowa City. And one morning, carrying his belongings in an Army-issue duffel bag, he crossed the Pentacrest on the campus to find the postwar temporary quarters in the Nissen huts, the quonset building where Paul Engle was holding the Writers’ Workshop.”

By 1947, Dr. E.K. Tiempo’s wife, Edith Lopez Tiempo, also joined to take part in the writing program in Iowa. When the Tiempos returned to the Philippines in 1951, Silliman University was already abuzz with creative writing. The campus was sprouting literary enthusiasts, among them Aida Rivera-Ford, Rodrigo and Dolores Feria, and Ricaredo Demetillo. The Tiempos made creative writing an area of concentration for English majors in the English Department—and soon that paved the way to preparations in 1961 to hold a workshop similar to the one they attended in Iowa. The following year, it became fully operational, and now it is known as the Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

In 1962, Engle himself visited Dumaguete, and met at the Silliman workshop two Asian writers, Ko Won and Wilfrido Nolledo. These two writers would soon form the nucleus of what was to be the Internatinal Writing Program, which Engle founded in 1967 with his wife, the Chinese writer Hualing Nieh Engle. Rowena Torrevillas, upon returning to Iowa City in the 1980s, would become part of the IWP staff, becoming its coordinator for many years, and editing with Paul Engle the 20th anniversary anthology of the IWP titled “The World Comes to Iowa.” By 2011, nineteen alumni and panelists of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, would go to Iowa as fellows of the IWP, including Wilfrido Nolledo in 1967, Cirilo Bautista in 1968, Erwin Castillo in 1969, Ninotchka Rosca in 1977, Alfred Yuson in 1978, Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas in 1984, Edgardo Maranan in 1985, Fidelito Cortes in 1986, Marra PL. Lanot in 1986, Susan S. Lara in 1987, Rofel Brion in 1990, Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta in 1990, Gemino H. Abad in 1991, Marjorie Evasco in 2002, Charlson Ong in 2002, Sarge Lacuesta in 2007, Vicente Garcia Groyon in 2009, yours truly in 2010, and Joel Toledo in 2011.

In 2005, writing fellows from the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, under Robin Hemley, also took part in the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete, with Angela Balcita, Elizabeth Rae Cowan, Matthew Davis, Bernadette Esposito, Brian Goedde, Jynelle Gracia, Bonnie Rough, and Alex Sheshunoff. The program also sent visiting writers from Iowa to Dumaguete during the workshop’s 50th anniversary in 2011.

It has been a rich literary relationship between two cities. But does Dumaguete have what it takes to be City of Literature? Do we have diversity of publishing in the city? Not exactly, but that can be done, if only we can get visionaries to see the value of a city that publishes books. Do our educational programs focusing on domestic or foreign literature in schools at all levels? They do, but perhaps a sharper focus—with attendant assistance by those in the know—is in order. Do we host literary events and festivals which promote domestic and foreign literature? By God, yes, and plenty of that. Do we have libraries, bookstores, and public or private cultural centers which preserve, promote, and disseminate domestic and foreign literature? Our public library needs help, we can do more than just have National Bookstore in our midst, but we do have cultural centers that do a fine job of literary dissemination. Does the local publishing sector help in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature? None of that, as yet. Is there an active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products? It can be done—but still a pipe dream.

It will take a while, but it can be done, if we really wanted to.

It will be an audacious undertaking necessitating a complete overhaul of how we think of this beloved city. But it can be done.

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