Friday, October 21, 2011

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

(In which I embark on a journey to solve a timeless mystery.)

***

One of my former colleagues from the academy once told me her experience when she took an international standardized examination. In her speaking test, she was asked by the examiner if she agrees that a picture paints a thousand words. She answered, “No, because if a picture paints a thousand words, then we need to speak a thousand words to prove that.” And the examiner beamed at her.

The question and her answer must have been something that Leonardo da Vinci wanted to reconcile when he painted The Last Supper. He created a painting that is innocent on the surface but controversial deep within, so that those who see it would contemplate on all its possible cryptic messages and then talk about it for centuries.


Among the many baffling irregularities depicted in Leonardo’s masterpiece includes the missing halos, the, missing meat on the table, Simon Peter holding a dagger and a rather feminine Apostle John, some of which were attributed with Da Vinci’s veganism, an ancient confusion of theological teachings, Mary Magdalene and ultimately, Leonardo’s heresy – the angles that Javier Sierra wishes to give light in his originally-Spanish novel, made readable to English readers through the translation by Albert Manguel.

This historical thriller is narrated by Agostino Leyre, the Chief Roman Inquisitor and Master General of the Secretariat of Keys as an account of his search of the true identity of The Soothsayer, the secret Hermes who warns Rome of the Milanese Duke Ludovico Il Moro’s heretic plan to revive the ancient Athenian philosophies right under the nose of the Papacy, and the huge part played by Leonardo da Vinci in this heterodoxy. Furthermore, The Soothsayer speaks of the disturbing symbols in Leonardo’s mural in Santa Maria delle Grazie. Assisted by the Domican monks of Santa Maria and fascinated by Leonardo’s genius, Fra Agostino becomes part-witness, part-investigator as a cycle of deaths flows and more revelations surface. The narrator moves from being the man convinced that he is the Sherlock Holmes of this mystery, then later on finds himself as a part of the mystery, then as a victim. Finally, he realizes that the true enigma is not that of The Soothsayer’s but Leonardo’s. And the solution to the latter leads to a more painstaking search.

I am still leery of religious-tainted fiction. But this reading experience opens up something anonymous in me. I could, for the time being, let my reading self not be hindered by matters of conflicting doctrines, or the darkness of every religion’s past, or by the fact that all religions’ claim for truth and supremacy doesn’t seem to end. We read to let our minds be opened, and/or our logic to be sharper, and/or our faith to be rejuvenated.

I feel so free I penned Dan Brown down on my TBR list. But for the meantime . . .



Currently reading

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan







Photo Source:

The Secret Supper
Saving Fish from Drowning

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing IV


(In which we are both tested.)

***

Today, in our IELTS writing class that has already run for more than a couple of weeks, I was once again baffled by Janice’ inability to come up with a 150-word essay about a line graph after twenty minutes. And when the inevitable shock and frustration showed on my face, she manifested an unconcerned countenance, explaining she actually didn’t expect to finish the task under time pressure.

Of course I was incredulous.

“You know, I already know I won’t finish it. Just like before.”

“And do you think that’s positive?” I can’t help but ask. I really try my best not to sound condescending so I didn't ask if that's is really something to be proud of. I wouldn’t want to be trained that way, either. All of us have our own pride to salvage.

“I know. But I think writing is not my goal. You know? If I fail IELTS, I will take speaking and reading test when I go back home. So writing is not really my priority. I think having writing everyday is not what I want. So now I’m confused. And I think, if I memorized a lot of academic expressions, I will write better,” she confidently lectured.

For more than two weeks, it filled me with happiness that her organization is improved at some instances. That she can defend her ideas and actually makes a concept map before writing. But IELTS is a timed test. Either you vouch to accomplish the tasks within the time limit or you quit. But I didn’t tell her that.

“First, we don’t have a writing task everyday. In fact, we spend most of our time on vocabulary practice and essay analysis. I understand that you aim for a superior academic vocabulary. And I am telling you, you have the capacity to produce an academic essay – “

“But it is not enough. You know? When I read sample essays, I do not feel frustrated. I feel that the words are important for me. So if I memorize them, I will be better.”

I took a deep breath and told her what I think.

“You know, I also read essays by writers younger than I am, writers who did not even major in English. And I feel frustrated about myself. So when I see a writing style or a vocabulary so awesome, I incorporate it with my own. You’re right. They are helpful. What I’m trying to say is that although I understand your predicament, we still have to stick to our goals. Do you know what our difference in that matter is?” I asked. And with that she looked suddenly stunned.

“I have all the time to spare and contemplate on my writing. You are making do on a limited time to be prepared for an exam. I wanted you to remember the right structure of writing. That is what the usual writing tests are for. I understand that you have a difficulty remembering vocabulary at times, and during the test, you will be too tensed to remember words. And the last thing you need is an unfinished essay albeit with superiorly academic vocabulary. The tasks are for you to be more familiar with writing styles. The time limit is for you to extract what you learn under time pressure. It really surprises me that I seem to be more pressured than you actually are.”

“I know”, he sighed, “but I don’t want to just to finish essay with basic words. I don’t want that.”

In my imagination, I can see her painstakingly searching for words to use in her essay. In her dismay of using late learner, she spent 5 minutes coming up with opsimath and another 5 minutes for somnambulist instead of sleepwalker. Those thoughts furthered my apprehension for the future so I discarded them immediately.

Thus the two-hour class intended for writing tests have been utilized in an open forum, an unfinished essay and an unspoken promise of a cycle.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex


(In which history is a knot woven by art and blood.)

***

Karen Essex’ Leonardo’s Swans seems to be a modern answer to Joanne Brown’s question asked more than a decade later regarding whether this literary genre is Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History, discussing the problem of truth, balance, accuracy and the necessity for a well-grounded research. Essex’ novel was like saying “Why choose between history and fiction when you can have both?”

The novel traverses the life of illustrious women in Italian history – Isabella d-Este, the high-brow Marchesa of Mantua and her sister Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan; the mistress of Beatrice’s husband, Cecilia Gallerani; and Lucrezia Crivelli, the duke’s later mistress. Most apparent was the central women of the novel, the Este sisters whose prominence and patronage of arts and literature, especially in their outward appreciation of the genius that was Leonardo da Vinci, were historically recorded, but not the possibility of a complicated sibling rivalry that could have encompassed not only their artistic purposes but the attention of the men around them.

Written with prefatory references to dates and excerpts from da Vinci’s notebooks in each chapter provides a channel from then to now and vice versa. It was like peeking at the magnificent labyrinth that was the master’s brain, and then being pulled out to see the old world as it makes his ideas come to pass. All those and intriguing political scandals combine to create a tale worth reading.



Currently reading

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra






Photo Sources
Leonardo’s Swans
The Secret Supper


Friday, September 30, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing III

(In which I am slowly memorizing a monologue day by day.)

***

In teaching the academic essay, we use samples as they make discussions easier. The objective is not to set a standard, but basically to present the wide variety of styles and ideas and all the thrilling possibilities of the written word. But recently, I felt as though this objective wasn’t met, at least in my class. That I have been misunderstood. Or that I didn’t make sense to the student. Or maybe I am wrong in all aspects.
Consider that the student isn’t a beginner. She/He knows what her/his targets are and just want to polish the skills to achieve that. So I give her/him a topic to write about, usually a homework. Then the next day, we edit the work together. Then we analyze the sample essay which, of course, has the same topic as her assignment. And then after a tedious series of comparison and contrast and structure analysis, I was shocked by one of the biggest (and surprisingly, the most repetitive) question I received upon analyzing a sample essay with my student.
“So you mean my style is wrong?”
Of course my answer is always no. But how should I answer that particular question asked by a student who doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that there are gray areas in writing? Well, this is what’s running in my mind now.
For example, on the subject of cyclones in rural areas, N.V.M. Gonzales wrote:

The storm had come. The thatched wall shook, producing a weird skittering sound at each gust of wind. The sough of the palms in back of the hut – which was hardly the size of the deckhouse barrel, and had the bare sand for floor – sounded like the moan of a lost child. A palm leaf began to dance a mad, rhythmless dance. . .
Given the same assignment, my version would be:
A terrible storm shook a small and shabby-looking house, creating a sound that resembles a haunting wail. And the background is a swaying green pandemonium.
(Now I suddenly regret choosing N.V.M. but it still renders the effect I was trying to point out. Anyway, I know my example is literary but I know you get the point.)
“The thing is that every writer writes differently. The fact that we all have different opinions about a certain idea proves that. And then there’s the other fact that we think differently,” thus goes my usual explanation. “The samples here are just guides; they are not standards. In the end, you will choose your own style and vocabulary with the knowledge that it has to answer the topic. There is no strict rubric regarding the exact paragraph structure and writing style intended for a certain question.”
And of course, N.V.M. Gonzales has a better way of saying that.

Photo Source:
Trees Writing an Essay

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

(In which hope outlives death.)

***
To begin with, there was only sleep, a great, deep well of it, our bodies greedy for the oblivion that comes with safety. . . I think sometimes now about that sleep, for I have never felt anything like it before or after; it had such sweetness that I might be tempted to trade Paradise for the promise of such profound forgetfulness. But we were not ready to die, and on the morning of the third day, I wake to spears of light through broken shutters and a stabbing hunger in my gut. I thought of our kitchen in Rome; its roasted fish, its skin crisp and bubbling from the oven, the thick taste of capon stuffed with rosemary and garlic, and the way the warm honey oozed from [the cook’s] almond cakes, so that you almost had to eat the tips of your fingers to be satisfied. . .

– page 44
Such were the thoughts that filled the mind of a courtesan’s dwarf, Bucino, on their first days in Venice, after they escaped death’s claw at the second sacking of Rome. He travels to Venice together with his bald lady Fiammetta Bianchini who, like him, is bloodied and penniless and whose stomach is empty of food but not of precious gems they had to swallow in order to salvage. And in that great and prosperous city, they work so hard to bring back the fortunes that they lost in the other city, with Fiammetta as the charming courtesan and Bucino the clever pimp. But the way to the lost fortune is not to be taken without the help of an old caretaker, an old friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again from Rome and a blind and crippled healer. All of whom are actually threats as much as they are succors.

With
In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant once again shows her magic with descriptive details akin to The Birth of Venus that it is almost impossible for a reader not to be enslaved by the charm of the characters and places in this unforgettable historical novel. If one finds himself/herself salivating over the picture of a sumptuous meal created retrospectively, then the conflicts due to complicated human relationships can appear as truthful as real life.

Being a story about a woman whose morals and virtues were already sold as part of a training scheme to become successful in the business of male desires, it is noteworthy that the novel speaks of trust, friendship, camaraderie and most astonishingly, love, all throughout. It reminds us how easily friendships can crumble at the sight of jealousy and mischief, how lives were wiped away by lies and deceit. But in the end, the most valuable lesson lies in not what it is seen, but felt.


Currently reading

How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster




Photo Sources:
In the Company of the Courtesan
How to Read Lit


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie


(In which wars cannot kill dreams.)


***

This is the first time I read a historical novel written by an African writer. It was lent to me by my boss who apparently and fortunately tolerates reading in the workplace and upon reading the blurbs, I was almost convinced that she just handed me a treasure.

And then I realized that the book would not only convince – it would enlighten.

In a carefully researched and internalized novel, Adichie narrates the life of Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy of Odenigbo who is a revolutionary teacher in Nsukka University; Olanna, his lover; Richard, a British man who aspires to become a writer and is in love with Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. Just like most war-time historical fiction, the characters’ life was peaceful and quiet regardless of Nigeria’s political instability. The British is still powerful in the country and there lies sensitive tribal divisions until a coup, for which other tribes blame the Igbo people, arises. Then the massacre of the Igbo follows, leading the way to a secession that separates the southeastern territory from the rest of Nigeria. And thus was the birth of the Republic of Biafra. And after a three-year war, it ceases to exist, but the violence continues.

In this moving and inspirational novel by Adichie, she proves how ruthless and insensible wars are, how it turns men into beasts and how fragile life is, all the while promising that choices are plenty and dreams are immortal. It is a touching story of life, hope, betrayal, forgiveness, death and the unending cycle of all these. In her patient narration and realistic characterization, Adichie holds the readers attention and never lets it go. And if one expects death as the most hair-raising conclusion a war story could have, then its conclusion could be an unforgettable surprise.



Currently reading

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant





Photo source:

Half of a Yellow Sun
In the Company of the Courtesan



Attending the 1st Filipino ReaderCon


(In which I abandoned my work for more fun.)


***

It was a long walk to get to SMX Convention Center and we almost got lost in the midst of technicolor banners and busy people and tons of books and wide corridors and a nauseatingly long escalator before I decided to message Chachic and get to the right venue. I silently blamed myself for not checking event information beforehand. But we got there. And that’s what matters.







What followed after getting our seats in the front row of a crowded meeting room (which, of course, is a positive thing) is really an awesome experience. First we’ve got Mr. Carljoe Javier and his speech on book publishing and social media . . .





. . . followed by a trio of online/offline book club administrators who discussed how to manage and keep a book club . . .



, and then a panel composed of five bloggers who talked about their blogging experiences.



And as if that’s not enough, there was food . . .



. . . and a raffle draw as well. My boyfriend won a Twilight movie magazine and I got a bagful of books and a shirt from OMF Lit.



I like all of them, with the bubbly lectures and all. But I especially like Miss Tata of Ex Libris and Miss Gege of Flips Flipping Pages. Aside from their vibrant personalities, I admire their passion for running and keeping a books club which adhere to noble advocacies. It made me proud to have been there to listen to them.



But along with the pride comes the gratefulness to all those made the event possible. By going through the laborious process in pioneering a convention dedicated to Pinoy book lovers, they have made a mark. Congratulations to the organizers and thanks to all the sponsors! Let there be more events like this.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Love As I See It


(In which tradition, talent, passion and romance converge.)


***



“Love your art and it will love you in return”, our art teacher told us way back in high school. Back when my artistic endeavor revolved around painting. I understand how to love art – to hone my skills and be a responsible artist. But how art can love me in return, I don’t completely know. Until I saw this artist at work.

At first I thought that art’s reciprocal love would only mean fame and money. But it dawned on me that heightened artistic skills come with the chance to showcase love’s beautiful multifacetedness.

It is apparent that the old man loved his art. Resisting the pull of this era of digital photo editing is enough evidence of his passion. And when I saw the forms created by the collective lines on his paper, I was enlightened. Through his art, the artist depicts a person’s love for another – and with dignified justice. The artwork being a conduit of an artist’s love for his craft and a romance between couples is a manifesto that the old man’s art loved him back, indeed.

This is my entry to “Love as I see it". A project of www.islandrose.net flowers Philippines.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Desire by Paz Latorena: An Analysis

(In which beauty and love are redefined.)

***

Paz Latorena’s
Desire was a powerful representation of social issues and evocative of people’s tendency to value external beauty over what’s within. It was full of emotional waves – rising, falling, intensifying then pacifying. The manner of narration was simple; the omniscient narrator told the story directly, fluidly. The characters are unnamed – only the personal pronouns he and she are indicatives of their identity, perhaps signifying the universality of the experience – that it happens or could happen to any male or female. This generality didn’t affect the narration, however. The picture the story painted was nonetheless vivid.

The central theme of the story is the title itself – desire. By definition, the word falls under two shades of meaning. The first one is an intense wanting for something while the other is refers to a strong sexual appetite. Latorena remarkably presented these two facets of desire through the story of a woman whose physical appearance was both a gift and a curse.
She was homely. A very broad forehead gave her face an unpleasant, masculine look. Her eyes, which were small, slanted at the corners and made many of her acquaintances wonder if perchance she had a few drops of celestial blood in her veins. Her nose was broad and flat, and its nostrils were always dilated, as if breathing were an effort. Her mouth, with its thick lips, was a long, straight gash across her face made angular by her unusually big jaws.
But nature, as if ashamed of her meanness in fashioning the face, moulded a body of unusual beauty. From her neck to her small feet, she was perfect. Her bust was full, her breast rose up like twin roses in full bloom. Her waist was slim as a young girl's, her hips seemed to have stolen the curve of the crescent moon. Her arms were shapely, ending in small hands with fine, tapering fingers that were the envy of her friends. Her legs with their trim ankles reminded one of those lifeless things seen in shop windows displaying the latest silk stockings.

Her face is nowhere close to a dream. But her body was a source of exotic aesthetic qualities. Which she hates, and with substantial reasons.
But she hated her body--hated that gift which Nature, in a fit or remorse for the wrong done to her face, had given her. She hated her body because it made men look at her with an unbeautiful light in their eyes--married eyes, single eyes.
She hates the body because of its effect on men. She hates it for it seemed to own her, and not the other way around, because nothing else about her mattered to men the same way that her body does. Men see her as a source of their desire – the desire to take that heavenly ensemble of curves and flesh.
Men looked at her face and turned their eyes away; they looked at her body and were enslaved. They forgot the broad masculine forehead, the unpleasant mouth, the aggressive jaws. All they had eyes for was that body, those hips that had stolen the curve of the crescent moon.
Latorena exposed men’s vulnerability in this part of the story. She presents them in an almost misandrist way – generalizing them into a pack of hormonally-enslaved creatures. It could have been controversial considering the conservative era when the story was written. Her generalization of men as being enthralled beautifully carved bodies was manifested by her usage of “single eyes and married eyes.”

This changed the perspective of the protagonist as regards to men as far as her body is concerned. She decides to hide her physique with the hopes of extinguishing the “unbeautiful light” it cast from the men’s eyes. She starts wearing loose dresses then. And she succeeded. But she still has one unfulfilled desire – the desire to be loved. For now the men no longer care for her. Without the body they adore, she was nothing but a “homely face” and a “mass of unshapely flesh”.

Thus the two desires were manifested. The sexual desire was embodied by the general male population while the feeling of intense wanting was symbolized by the protagonist’s desire for true love. In the modern society, it is still surprisingly happening, and with alarming intensity at times. For the women were known for their vulnerability and romanticism and men for their infidelity and idealism. It was an interesting Venn diagram showing that over time, the difference between the two sexes haven’t changed much, as also reflected by other literary works such as The Scent of Apples by Bienvenido Santos.
. . . Twenty years ago our women were nice, they were modest, they wore their hair long, they dressed proper and went for no monkey business. They were natural, they went to church regular, and they were faithful." He had spoken slowly, and now in what seemed like an afterthought, added, "It's the men who ain't."
Women, on the other hand, were usually presented as the waiting character as shown by classic romantic tales depicting a lady in distress waiting to be rescued by her knight in shining armor, or the slave girl dreaming for Prince Charming. Latorena’s protagonist was a waiting character, too. And while she was, she wrote and scribbled and her works found their way to a publication, and eventually captured the attention of a man from the West. They had a brief epistolary correspondence, for they soon decided to meet personally. Of course the man was shocked to see her. But he soon grew comfortable in her company due to her wit and sensibility. They quickly established a friendship that the homely girl enjoyed thinking that her appearance meant little, if anything to the man.

It was in their third meeting when she decides to reveal her hidden beauty, thinking that it would also matter little to him because he tells her he likes her. She is very confident that this man could be trusted. When he sees her, he’s in total awe. But he quickly regains his composure that gave the homely woman more faith in him.
She heaved in a deep sigh. She was right. She had found a man to whom her body mattered little if anything at all. She need not take warning. He had learned to like her for herself.
However, it's their fourth (and most probably the last) meeting, the woman again displays the body that cause men to be enslaved. And this time, she gets the biggest surprise – the shattering of a dream.
“I… I… love…” he stammered after some moment, as if impelled by an irresistible force. Then he stopped. . .

The small eyes that slanted at the corners were almost beautiful with a tender, soft light as she turned them on hi. So he loved her. Had he learned not only to like her but to love her? For herself. And the half finished confession found an echo in the heart of the woman who was starved for love.

“Yes…” there was a pleading note in her voice.

He swallowed hard. “I love…. Your body.” He finished with a thick voice: And the blue eyes flared with the dreaded, hateful light. . .
Beauty was one of the ubiquitous themes in literature as manifested by Edgar Allan Poe’s To Helen and Anacreon’s Beauty is a Woman’s Weapon, among others. Both show the significance of beauty and their admiration to a beautiful woman. Latorena, however, depicted beauty as an instrument of disillusionment and a bifacial thing. It wouldn’t have the same interesting dramatic impact had the protagonist possessed both an attractive countenance and physique. It’s the imperfection of the character that rendered beauty to the work.

Another important factor worth mentioning was the story’s being a transition literature. The presence of the White man, presumably an American, symbolized the Westernization of aesthetic standards, which is also currently predominant as shown by the predilection of people to admire attractive exteriors and façades various types of media. Latorena, didn’t just show one period of time, but her work was somewhat of a clairvoyant nature, extending to the present era when Exuperian philosophy of looking at real beauty was hardly adhered to.

The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey


(In which another scandalous artist takes the limelight.)


***
“Poor Jane!” he said when she had finished, but he said it merrily, not pityingly. “All that is needed is three wicked stepsisters and a pumpkin coach.” – p. . 46
It is almost a Cinderella story. That typical poor, abused girl whose fate started to take a better course after attending a party where she meets her Prince Charming. But Jane Burden’s tale somehow breaks away from this fairy tale convention in the sense that she isn’t only a poor, abused girl. She is the ugliest girl in a slum in Oxford, England and she lives in a house near the public privy. She has a brother and a sister who are not as wicked as the cinder girl’s siblings but are equally annoying. She isn’t taken by a pumpkin coach to a party; she walks her way to the theater where she meets her Prince Charming who happens to be a rather charismatic artist with an Italian surname. He doesn’t make her wear the other pair of a glass slipper, but a beautiful moss green velvet gown for his painting of Guinevere. And that luxurious gown was designed and delivered by her other Prince Charming. Yes, this Cinderella is quite lucky at that part. But, this is where the fairy tale stops – the ending isn’t as happy as fairy tales should be.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t expecting a fairy tale. I was just struck by the interesting comparison. Of course, Hickey’s second novel is about art. And remarkably, she was able to connect the lives of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti. Hickey laid out the foundation of an initially romantic future between Jane and Gabriel, until the latter is spirited away from her life by an emergency. Then she was rescued by William Morris, also an artist, from both her parents’ decision that she marries a neighbor’s son and from the pain Rossetti has caused her when he left. Everything goes on reasonably well. Jane ceases to live a life full of hardships and starvation. She is introduced to the grand and scandalous society of artists and poets and writers and receives praises for her beauty which both humiliated and humbled her. She has a grand mansion, a workaholic husband and two beautiful daughters when Rossetti comes back. And then the passion between them also returns with a vengeance.

Reading Elizabeth Hickey’s
The Wayward Muse is a concoction of varying emotions and opinions. However, this time, the experience is not entirely about sentimentalism due to a poignant narration. It rather sounded as if I overheard friends chatting over coffee one afternoon. The narration was awkwardly hasty. And it took me 84 pages before I came across a time indicator, a rarity in historical fiction. But of course, the writer is not supposed to start the tale with a mentioning in what circa the story took place. But due to the quick story-telling, I barely had time to relish the setting that the story could have happened in a more contemporary time. The idea was promising, though. Having a protagonist who defies popular esthetic standards as a model for paintings verifies the truth that beauty cannot be measured by general criteria. And though the novel didn’t really focus on the artists at work but the scandal that ruined them, they were presented well as real humans with real flaws and vulnerability. It was pretty much the same pattern Hickey used in The Painted Kiss, which I, by the way, will surely remember more fondly.

Oh wait, that made me think: What’s with Hickey and hedonistic and irresponsible, albeit talented male artists who were reduced to invalids until their death? And luckily for them, one has a faithful woman who remained unmarried and the other a loyal mistress but an unfaithful wife who never left!



Currently reading

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie




Photo Source:
Wayward Muse
Half of a Yellow Sun

Friday, August 12, 2011

Philippine Literature in English Today and its Challenge to Contemporary Filipino Writers in English


(In which I share my serious thoughts.)

***

The following is an essay I submitted in school in response to my professor's question as regards to the current status of Philippine literature in English and the challenges the present and future Filipino writers in English face.

***

We live in an age where the kind of lifestyle predominant was unimaginable 100 years ago. Through the continuing development of science and technology, every aspect of human life is expected to improve. These advancements help shape the tremendous change in almost every field of study – communication, business, arts, etc. As technology elevates various fields of science and arts into a widely spread compilation of information accessible through the World Wide Web, it is no wonder that it has done equally so with Philippine literature. Therefore, the literary critic Isagani R. Cruz was correct when he said that “The Philippine literature is alive and well and living on the Web.” (Cruz, 2009)

He gave this statement in a lecture with the student group WIKA Kabataan in UP Diliman where he was asked to explain the current status of Philippine literature. In his article published in the Philippine Star entitled “Philippine Literature Today”, he managed to depict the condition of the country’s literature through a presentation of three types of writing – an excerpt from Virgilio Almario’s Hudhud trickily presented as prose, a long text from a blog presented as verse and a paragraph from Bob Ong’s blog. The reaction of the students in the conference confirmed his thesis for the lecture – that Bob Ong symbolizes Philippine literature today.

Considering the age of the Philippine population, it is rather expected that the youth will be the driving force of changes in the field of written arts. Their needs and predilection will be the prime mover of the future of our country’s literature. Therefore, Bob Ong’s popularity is an easy win, not to mention epic. The youth can easily relate themselves to his writing and the language in which his works is presented is the icing on the cake.

However, Bob Ong being known as a writer in Filipino raises questions concerning the other major aspect of our country’s literature: Who, or what, then, is the icon for contemporary Philippine literature in English?

Currently published works of fiction in the country written in English by Filipino writers are dominated by YA (Young Adult) and graphic novels. The subgenres vary from chick lit to fantasy. This trend, however, is expected, as in the case of Philippine literature in Filipino. Again, the current trend is dictated by the penchant of the younger generation; the popularization of which is made easier by online catalogs and digital downloads. It is also worth noting that these fictions are somehow patterned from the Western example, which where some of the problems start.

The revolution of the modern world around anything Western could be considered the epitome of the challenges that the present and future Filipino writers in English must face. The hype directing readers towards Western literature was one of the main causes for the insufficiency of the market for locally published works of literature. (Wikipilipinas) One sad facet of this is the readers’ creation of standards regarding the books that they choose to read. Not that setting a standard is bad. However, if the readers base their criteria on foreign books, i.e., writing styles and themes, the Filipino writer is expected to come to terms with it by giving in to what the prospective market expects, thus somehow losing some important aspects of cultural signatures in writing in favor of profit. Another challenge the Filipino writers need to triumph over deals with grammar, diction and meaning of words. (Santos, 2002) Although this might be a case of cultural preference or even tradition, some expressions, words and writing styles may appear unappealing to other readers.

Given these problems, the present and future Filipino writers in English are then expected to strive more in the attempts of encouraging more readers. It is quite ironic that in a population of more than 90 million, a literary work with a maximum publication of 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller if it sold that thousand copies in a year. (FilipinoWriter) Hopefully, in the future, more readers would be interested in patronizing works by local authors and eventually help in providing a more solid identity to our literature. It may sound Herculean, but not impossible.

References

Cruz, Isagani. (2009, August 20). Philippine Literature Today. The Philippine Star. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleid=497452

Philippine Literature in English. (n.d.). In Wikipilipinas. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://en.wikipilipinas.org/index.php?title=Philippine_Literature_in_English

Santos, H. O. (2002) Philippine Literature Today: A View from Afar. Philippine Best Short Stories. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://www.sushidog.com/bpss/essays/rplit_today.htm

Tantizm, (2009, September 8) "Read or Die" ni National Artist Virgilio S. Almario. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from http://www.filipinowriter.com/read-or-die-ni-national-artist- virgilio-s-almario

ReaderCon Filipino Friday Week 1: Introduce Yourself

(In which one’s colors are proudly shown.)

***

This weekly meme hosted by the First Filipino ReaderCon site five weeks before the event gathers Filipino book bloggers to unite. As it’s the opening week, participating bloggers are invited to introduce themselves. Write an introduction about yourself and link up here! Or better yet, come to the First Filipino ReaderCon event! Please check the website for the details.

***

I am Funandfearless. Not that the pseudonym really reflects a fierce and outgoing personality. The choice is more driven by the cool sounding title from a magazine than reality. This blog, The Bibliophilic Night Owl, however, is more realistically connected to me, as the only serene time for me to read is late evening, or early morning, depending on what time I got home from work.

My library is the self-same room I sleep in and inhabit when I’m at home. I just pile the mostly secondhand books I acquire in my weekend wanderings on one corner and let them fill the space. I group them according to my own weird categorization. I actually have two TBR piles – one for the not-so-interesting-so-no-rush books and the I-can’t-wait-to-read pile. Then I’ve got the already-read pile.

I don’t have a lot of books since I have just restarted reading last year, or was that two years ago? Anyway, I am a terribly slow reader. I usually spend a month on regular books. When I say regular books I mean the ones whose pages range from 300 – 400. So it takes 2 months for 800+paged books, and so on. See? I’m really slow.

The books I read are not the ones favored by the majority. I enjoy historical fiction. But not all types of historical fiction. My book piles generally include art and music fiction, or those about famous people (as long as I know them) and recently, I began to collect novels about courtesans. My favorite authors are Susan Vreeland, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Arabella Edge, Sarah Dunant as well as Michel Faber, who was nowthe most unforgettable in my list of authors for providing me my best read for this year – The Crimson Petal and the White.

I haven’t read a lot of books yet. And I haven’t explored every literary genre there is. But I’m taking my time. Besides, I still have a lot of nighttime to read.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mt. Mayon by Simeon Dumdum Jr.


(In which I got the chance to see it again . . . in someone else's eyes.)

***

Mt. Mayon
(From the airport in Legaspi City)

Simeon Dumdum Jr.

As to this jacketed, hunting-capped
And skippered man following me as though
Afraid I might ogle his daughter,
Perhaps he is really just a tricycle driver
Stalking a fare, but beast enough to stand
Wide-eyed, watching this mountain too
As it goes déshabillé, while the wind
Shoos away the clouds of sheep until
nothing remains
But a lamb sucking the blue nipple.

***

At first read, or even at the second or third, a reader will simply find a scenario typical of provincial mountainside life in Simeon Dumdum Jr.'s Mt. Mayon. It is just a fleeting moment, a scene captured through the lens of a camera and could even be an abstract emotional memories of one's first visit to a province. But the structural brevity and simplicity of the poem actually exude beauty and love for it.

I have been to Bicol only once and was granted a visit to a mountain where we got a better look at Mt. Mayon. Some of the memories I had from that trip include children running barefoot after our vehicle while shouting greetings of welcome, and old men and women smiling toothlessly at the sight of local tourists. It was so heartwarming, light and human. Yet those adjectives always fell short of full description. So when I read how Dumdum described the man he encountered at the airport, I was amazed both by the simplicity and the weight of words he used.
As to this jacketed, hunting-capped
And skippered man following me as though
Afraid I might ogle his daughter,
Perhaps he is really just a tricycle driver
Stalking a fare . . .
And then the sight of the mountain. It had been a long time since it was branded for it conical perfection. But I dare say that at time, I, the amateur self-proclaimed connoisseur of beauty that I am, saw no apparent disgrace to its name, based on postcards from which my judgment emanated. It was no wonder why the man was,
. . . but beast enough to stand
Wide-eyed, watching this mountain too . . .
It was just a moment, a fleeting moment when wind and mist of evaporated water waltzed to uncover a beauty capable of putting other beauties to shame. The excitement one experiences while watching the mountain come into clearer view is akin to the expectation of a gallery spectator for a celebrated masterpiece to be unveiled. As the clouds, which Dumdum referred to as "clouds of sheep", moved away, what remains is the perfect mound of earth, déshabillé. At the peak of it was "a lamb sucking the blue nipple", the tip of the cone kissing the blue sky.
As it goes déshabillé, while the wind
Shoos away the clouds of sheep until
nothing remains
But a lamb sucking the blue nipple.
Poetry, in its purest and most perfect state, is a reproduction of ephemeral beauty with the hope of making it last for posterity. In Mt. Mayon, Simeon Dumdum Jr.'s artistic play of words was a gift to people who love nature as well as verses. It could even be a call, a reminder for people to look around and marvel at how wonderful the world is, and perhaps ruminate on the fact that serenity could be sometimes found in a glance at a beautiful mound of earth.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

(In which everything is surprising.)

***

“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them”, goes the introductory warning in Michel Faber’s novel about a nineteen-year-old prostitute named Sugar and his patron, the future owner of Rackham Perfumeries, William. The speaker of this warning leads the reader down to dark alleys slimy with muck and noisy with yells of mongers and pathetic pleas and offers of beggars and prostitutes competing for the attention of passers-by. This is where the 895-page tour starts.
The first itinerary is Church Lane, St. Giles, in the house where Caroline, Sugar’s friend and also a prostitute, lives. It only needs several minutes of being guided through all the external and internal filth of the place for the reader to realize that this is not the place one wants to stay in. Luckily, Caroline takes us to a more decent (compared to St. Giles, of course) Silver Street where Sugar is to be met. Sugar then takes the visitor to Mrs. Castaway’s house of ill repute and to The Fireside, a tavern Sugar frequents in search for customers. From here, the course of an unusual romance between a man who had been refusing to manage a perfume empire and therefore has been suffering an increasingly unbearable financial torture from his father, and a whore whose only dream is (well, apart from publishing her rather gory novel which depicts her desire to be the female version of Jack the Ripper) to escape the embarrassing and disgusting life in a whorehouse run by her own mother, begins to take shape.
The affair started out of William’s curiosity regarding a very inviting article from More Sprees in London – Hints for Men About Town, with advice for greenhorns which features Sugar as the most sought-after girl in Mrs. Castaway’s. After a night of being with her, William decides that Sugar is to be his and only his. And for that to materialize, he needs to elevate from a distressed husband with a blurry future to a man of great consequence. He eventually becomes able to afford exclusive patronage of Sugar, and later on, a luxurious lodging at Priory Close as their love nest. Their dangerously clandestine relationship takes the visitor to omnibus and carriage rides to William’s mansion at Chepstow Villas, Notting Hill to his vast lavender farms; to the shabby house of William’s brother Henry to the Catholic church that Agnes, William’s sickly wife, thinks was miraculous as well as to her own delusional Convent of Health and to the secluded quarters of their daughter Sophie. In fear of losing William, Sugar armors herself not only with facts about perfume-making through painstaking determination but with intimate knowledge of the Rackhams and goes as far as stalking them to parties and theaters. It is an enjoyable trip – intriguing and amusing and stressful all at the same time. But, of course, the novel doesn’t start with a warning for nothing.
The Crimson Petal and the White is unique in the boldness of using the subjects of sex and filth with such a smooth artistic refinement. The scenes he painted are not the usual places one reads in historical novels. Instead of massive, grand hallways where wealth reigns and ladies in fashionable clothes speak in hushed voices, he describes pathetic makeshift houses with pathetic inhabitants compared to a mansion teeming with servants but holds a young girl captive in fear of a superstitious mother. The characters are not noblemen but mere businessmen and a prostitute. The peripheral characters include a doctor, a clergyman and widows and widowers. And the picture of poverty! The novel taps the social and religious state of the era so hard one would thank the novelist cum tour guide for the cautionary introduction of this novel within a novel.
Dark, sexy, dirty and mysterious with all the comparisons and contrasts and the fearless blending of all those, The Crimson Petal and the White proves any reader initially daunted by its weight wrong. In fact, its dimensions are designed to make one scream for more. For after reading a tale of only a hundred and five pages short of a thousand, the tourist will be caught stranded in the same street where the journey started, watching Caroline disappear in the darkness amidst the sound of a carriage leaving, with the guide ending the trip with this:
“But now, it’s time to let me go.”
Currently reading:

The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey





Photo Source:
Crimson Petal and the White
The Wayward Muse

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lessons from BookSale

(In which my impulsiveness was once more elucidated.)

***

I love BookSale’s bargain books. Aside from their wallet-friendly quality, (which comprises 50% of my penchant for them) they let the child in me come to life in every visit to this metropolitan paradise of secondhand books. What elation could be more childlike than the tickle a surprise gives? Imagine unearthing a work of a favorite author or a five-star book from a nook of a book-filled shelf? And priced more than 50% off the original? It’s like recovering a jade from the sand!

But of course, just like everything else, bargain books come with some catches. Generally, despite knowing that they’re not new, we somehow wish that they appear as something close to that. So what to do when they’ve got creases on the spine and/or dog-eared pages and/or a folded cover or a damaged jacket? Some will surely moan in pained disappointment upon encountering one and toss it back to the pile. But I won’t. I mean I won’t toss it back to the pile. For one thing I learned after years of surveying books at BookSale is to decide against procrastination or optimism that I might just be lucky to still find a really good book available on the next visit for it rarely happens. At least for me.

But this attitude also has its downs. Take for instance my visit to another BookSale branch where I found a totally beautiful-inside-and-out version of a book I already purchased. And then I couldn’t help imagining the one I bought – the ill-glued middle page, the folded cover and the frayed edges – while feeling the soft, almost new cover and looking at the intact leaves of the more carefully-kept copy. Now this time I have to (no, not toss) carefully put it back to the pile with a useless wish that I had found it earlier. And then I hope someone recover that jade-in-the-sand soon because it’s a truly awesome book.

But as what we already know, we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or by its price, or by the way the pages are pasted together. But what’s inside, printed on the however-looking leaf. For what will be ingrained in our memory is not how awfully secondhand or new the book was when we acquired it, but how the contents of that book changed our lives.

Now that’s another reason to love BookSale. Wow! I never knew a book store can be a good teacher too.