In all, we numbered 17, including our professors M. Evelina Galang, director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Miami, Jose (Butch) Dalisay and Charlson Ong, esteemed authors and faculty members of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW). Committing a significant act of history, our pilgrimage was further invigorated by the generous support of Philippine American Writers & Artists, Inc. and the Manuel Flores Scholarship Fund.
During the first two days, January 4 and 5, we convened in the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the College of Arts and Letters Library on the UP campus. Evelina began our lessons in Fiction by directing us to identify the Emotional Truth in a story and then look for potential for conflict in order to achieve authenticity of the Character. During the introductions of each of the group members, I mused about applying this exercise to ourselves: Why were we here (emotional truth)? What did we hope to gain (conflict/obstacles)? Would we come away from the experience more Authentic than when we arrived?
Writing is an act of discovery.
Full disclosure: I was star-struck in my anticipation of working with the likes of Butch Dalisay whose book, Soledad’s Sister (Anvil, 2008), I had chosen among the shelves of books during my first visit to the Philippines at the National Bookstore in Malate back in 2012. Though I felt a bit nerdy at bringing a couple of his books along should I have the chance to have one signed, I decided to seize the moment, which would never present itself the same way again. He signed my copy of Penmanship & Other Stories. That said, when the real work began, it was time to put the autographs away. But my admiration rose to a whole new level—not only for him, but in equal measure for Professors Charlson Ong and M. Evelina Galang. Right about here, they would probably say, “Do the Work.”
We were challenged to write something different other than what we’ve done before. The question was posed, “How many writers write about what goes on with ordinary Filipinos?” For example, many students write about conversations in Starbucks, not about the water, the land. It was said that the Philippines resists the notion of unitedness as a nation. It clings to freedoms, but at the same time there is a regionalism that prevents Filipinos from talking to each other. The U.S.-based writers shared the issue of race and our representation --or lack of-- in the mainstream, not only in literature, but also in the media. The challenge, “Let’s have responsibilities to larger audiences and raise the quality” applied to both groups of writers.
The evening brought the group to Balay Kalinaw, a meeting center on the UP Campus, where campus literati attended a celebration honoring NVM Gonzalez. Also present were Mrs. Narita Gonzalez as well as PositivelyFilipino.com founder, Mona Lisa Yuchengco, who happened to be in the Philippines. In addition to musical tributes and heartfelt speeches, I was invited to launch my book, #30 Collantes Street, an honor, given that two of the pieces, “Jesus on the Wall” and “Cebuano” resulted from the 2011 NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop at Sonoma State University, in California, under Peter Bacho’s guidance. In addition, each of the Fellows shared their personal experiences with NVM and/or how their writing has been influenced by his legacy.
On January 6, the group moved on to Calapan, Mindoro, where NVM grew up, though he was born in Romblon. At Penelope Flores’ family residence in Masipit, we were honored with the Putong, a traditional ceremony found only in Mindoro, in which special guests are crowned. The ceremony began with a dance and a song performed by the Mother Butlers Mission Guild dressed in costumes of pink satin: Nalia G. Umali, Glecy Latorre, Eleanor C. Acob, Leah Go, Mercy Caravan, Beth L. Villarrea, Caring V. Mendoza, Torrie Leano, Elviri G. Bostomel, Ely S. Caringal, Em M. Villafuerte and Lorie. C. Anyayahan. Putong carries no political value, but rather a cultural one, according to Penelope. Its dance and songs are specific to the ceremony, a welcome during which a crown was presented to each of the NVM Gonzalez Group members. Since nature is bountiful in Calapan, the native flowers and plants used to make the crowns served as a gracious offering of the bounties of the Land, connecting us to the local customs.
On the evening of the 7th, Anya Postma, a Mangyan Dutch, and members of the Mangyan Heritage Center gave a lecture on the Ambahan—the poetic expression of the Mangyans , the indigenous people of southern Mindoro, which consists of eight different tribal groups. Anya’s mother, Yam-ay Insik, is a native Mangyan, from whom Anya learned all the cultural practices. Her father, Antoon Postma, from the Netherlands, has lived in the mountain Barangay Panaytayan for over 50 years and translated a book of poems called Manyan Treasures.
On our last day in Mindoro, we were treated to a day trip to Puerto Galera and the home of Almira Gilles who graciously opened her beautiful beach home for the reading of our final pieces. Amidst the lusciousness of the sea, flowers and sand, Manang Helen’s cooking fed our spirits. I felt my heart, more than my stomach, filled once again. On the certificates presented by Myke, we were honored by words from his mother, Narita Gonzalez: [Photo 7] [Photo 8]
“The NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Centennial Workshop at University of Philippines and at Calapan, Mindoro is a signal honor to a Filipino writer and teacher. Your participation in the workshop is gratifying that you also believe in NVM’s life and love of the craft of writing.”
Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor at College of San Mateo and teaches in both the Language Arts and Kinesiology divisions. She is the recipient of the 2015 Plaridel Award for Best Entertainment Story, “Maseg: An Artistic Tempest,” and also published her first book, #30 Collantes Street (Carayan Press) in October, 2015. She has been a member of two NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Workshops: 2011 Sonoma State University, and 2016 University of the Philippines, Diliman & Calapan Oriental Mindoro.
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