The Writer As Disruptor

Author Benjamin Pimentel (Photo by Vic Bareng)

One afternoon sometime in the mid-1970s, I walked into the Alemar’s publishing office on Quezon Boulevard near the Pantranco bus terminal, and asked if I could talk to someone about publishing my book.

I was around ten. I can imagine now that the staff at the publishing house were surprised, amused, maybe even annoyed. I was probably an unwanted disruption in the office that afternoon, a panggulo. Still, one of them, who looked like he was the boss, asked me to step into his office. 

I still remember his name: Mr. Vivencio Porto. I don’t remember his title. But I do remember his patience and kindness—even after I handed him a bundle of Cattleya notebooks on which I had written in pencil about a half a dozen stories. 

I don’t remember what he said. But he was polite and talked to me about writing. He mentioned some guy named “Hemingway” and encouraged me to read him. And then, our meeting over, he led me to the bookstore on the ground floor and bought me a collection of short stories.

No, they didn’t publish my stories. But Mr. Porto did later publish two of my poems in the The Filipino Educator. The magazine was geared to public school teachers, some of whom may have been puzzled by the inclusion of a couple of kiddie poems in that edition. 

Still, it was exciting to see my name in print. Even better, Mr. Porto gave me a check for thirty pesos.

That’s how my writing career got started.

I remember wanting to be writer ever since I was eight. One of my favorite books as a child was the Ladybird series biography of Charles Dickens. I wanted to be like Dickens. Later. I discovered journalism. I joined my school paper at Ateneo High School and the Philippine Collegian at the UP Diliman.

To my father’s disappointment, I junked the plan (mainly his) for me to go to law school or to be banker. After college, I joined a small magazine called Midweek edited by Pete Lacaba and Greg Brillantes. Three years later, I moved to California for studies at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. From there I was off to a job as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. I had a great time. I stayed 14 years.

But my journalism career in San Francisco coincided with a major change. I joined the paper shortly after the code for the World Wide Web was created, turning the Internet (which had been around since the 1960s) into a mass phenomenon.

Within ten years, the American newspaper industry was in deep crisis, as print ad revenue dried up. In 2007, after more than a dozen years as a reporter in San Francisco and with two children to support, I decided it was time to move on. 

I got a job in public relations at Stanford. In journalism parlance, I had gone to the “dark side”—that is, I moved from being a journalist to being a PR person. 

The strange thing is that the “dark side” was actually a bright pleasant place. I worked with wonderful, brilliant people, some of them former journalists like me. The Stanford campus is gorgeous. I was making more money in a job that was also certainly more secure than being a newspaperman.

He urged me to be wary of the influence of politics and dogma: ‘Art is more resilient, and harder to take on, than politics.’

But for some bizarre reason, I was unhappy. There was too much journalism in the blood, I told friends. I wanted to get back into the game. I eventually did. But it was during that hiatus from mainstream media that invited me to write a column. I quickly pounced at the chance.

It’s been a fun ride. I’ve written about Filipinos in the U.S. and on events back home. I’ve opined on Manny Pacquiao (and his nemesis Floyd Mayweather), Noynoy Aquino and Willie Revillame, on Domingo and Viernes and the ghost of the Marcos regime.

Writing for allowed me to be part of Philippine media even from a distance. Now to be sure, I have no delusions about my role or my place in Philippine media. As I’ve said before, if every Filipino could read just two or three Filipino columnists to keep abreast of what’s going on in the Philippines, I wouldn’t read me. 

The reason is obvious: although the Web gives me quick access to information and insights, and I try my best to pick relevant topics and present my views clearly, I am still far away from the action.

In a way, I am once again a “panggulo”—a supporting player who may occasionally offer a fresh, maybe even engaging, insight into events in the Filipino American community or in the Philippines.

In fact, that’s how I think we expats should see ourselves: “panggulo.” Perhaps a better word is alalay, they who support. The less flattering term (though not totally accurate) would be salimpusa, a minor, insignificant player.

In basketball, we’d be the second team (or the water boys). In the movies, the supporting actors (or the extras). We made the choice to get off the stage, so we shouldn’t expect the spotlight or a prominent seat at home. That should even be true for those of us who return to help. Which means, if you’re a doctor on a medical mission in some poor barrio, or an entrepreneur hoping to expand in the Philippines, you take your cues from that community-based physician or that local businessman on how to share all that knowledge you got from living abroad.

Certainly, I believe Filipinos abroad have much to contribute. After all, while “panggulo’ means “nuisance,” it can also mean "disruptor." And disruptor can have a double-edged meaning, especially in an increasingly globalized world. 

Certainly, somebody like entrepreneur Dado Banatao, who donated millions of dollars to UP’s technology education program, would not be considered a nuisance. But he can be seen as a disruptor, in the way that disruption is viewed positively in Silicon Valley where Dado is considered a pioneer. That is, like the microchip, the PC, the iPod, a seemingly crazy person, idea, or product (sometimes invented in a garage) that shook things up.

In fact, those disruptions in technology also paved the way for my “panggulo” role. 

The Web and social media enabled me to keep up with what’s going on, sometimes in real time and to respond in a timely way. My column on Filipino American baseball star Tim Lincecum got published literally minutes after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010. Mainly because my friend and editor Veronica Uy and I were communicating on Facebook as the final game was being played.

I was able to weigh in on the sad case of the crying, dancing boy on Willie Revillame’s show after seeing video clip on my friend Peachy Bretana’s Facebook wall. (And she later led the effort to push the networks to pay more attention to the way children are portrayed and treated on TV.)

I was able to share my thoughts on the controversial essay on language by Ateneo student James Soriano. That essay, “How my sons lost their Tagalog, Sulat kay James Soriano,” even went viral becoming the most shared article on’s Global Nation section in 2011.

That piece also allowed me to try a style that has always fascinated me: writing an essay in both English and Pilipino. In fact, that’s been one of the rewards of writing my “Kuwento” column. It has allowed me to again explore one of my passions: writing in Pilipino. 

It would probably surprise many that it’s a passion that I first developed in the most unlikely place, especially in the wake of the uproar that James Soriano’s essay unleashed.

Ateneo is known as a bastion of English-speaking elitism, for its Arnnneow accent. But it’s also known for Pagsi. That’s the nickname of Onofre Pagsanghan, who was my Pilipino teacher in my freshman high school year. He introduced me to the beauty of Pilipino and Pilipino literature. In fact, he’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with Pilipino.

Pagsi introduced me to the magical realm of the “Ibong Adarna.” To the nobility of fatherhood, even in midst of poverty and deprivation, in the short story, “Si Ama.”

“A good man, a solid man,” I remember Pagsi telling our class when we discussed Edgardo Reyes’s story of a man who bravely faced life’s hurdles and never lost his sense of honor and decency.

Pimentel's "How My Sons Lost Their Tagalog" (Image courtesy of Benjamin Pimentel)

Pagsi explored with my classmates and me the gritty existence of “Impeng Negro,” the poor lad who learned to fight for his rights against a local thug in the classic short story by Rogelio Sikat.

That love for Pilipino I took with me to UP Diliman where I found other writers to emulate. The most important, to be sure, is Roger Sikat himself. 

Sir Sikat, as we called him, wrote with intense passion about ordinary people, especially farmers. But he could also be impatient, even resentful, of writers who tried to write about the poor and the oppressed simply because it was the politically “in” thing to do.

I was lucky to have known him and to have had a chance to learn from him. For like other aspiring writers on campus in the 1980s, I dreamed of becoming a writer of the people, whose literary aspirations were rooted in social and political realities. By then I was drawn to another image of the writer as “panggulo”—the writer as activist. But Roger Sikat gave me valuable wisdom that has sustained me as a writer and journalist.

I have kept two of his letters all these years. A three-page handwritten letter dated September 27, 1982, critiqued a play I wrote for his class. It also contained nuggets of valuable insight into writing, language and literature.

One advice that stands out: It’s great and noble to want to write about the poor and the oppressed, but you better know what the heck you’re talking about.

For Sir Sikat was unimpressed, to the point of being disgusted, with writers who mouth slogans and who write based on the current political fad. 

“You are shaped by your life experiences,” he wrote in Tagalog. “I don’t expect you to write well about things you don’t know much about. I remember some plays in the 1970s supposedly geared to workers and peasants but written without sufficient knowledge and insight. Nakakasawa! It got so tiring! … Do not try to follow tradition just because it is tradition. Express yourself. Be true to yourself.”

He urged me to be wary of the influence of politics and dogma: “Art is more resilient, and harder to take on, than politics. Nagtatagal ang sining at ang pulitika ay pansamantala. Art endures, while politics is transitory.”

Art also takes commitment, he said, emphasizing, “It is important, so important, for a writer, to master language. Read more. Force yourself to read more. Pilitin mo.” But he warned, “Mag-ingat ka rin sa iyong pag babasa ‘pagkat baka lipas na ang timpla ng wika mong makuha. Be conscious in your reading for the language you absorb may be outdated and no longer relevant.”

And he stressed the importance of trying to understand the past and our history, while counseling caution when it comes to the blinders of tradition. “Kung minsan, naiisip kong masuwerte ka at ang mga katulad mo. Wala kayong nakagapos na tradisyon na kailangang baklasin. Sometimes I think people like you are lucky. You are not bound by traditions from which you need to break free.”

The letter ends with a simple, but powerful, line: “Ang pagsulat ay pagtuklas. Lakad ka na. Writing is about discovering. Get on with your journey.”

He was in his 40s when he wrote that three decades ago. Sir Sikat died in 1997. I’m now in my forties, and I’d like to think that my journey as a writer was faithful to that advice.

Earlier this year, my book, How My Sons Lost Their Tagalog, was published in Manila, a small marker of a journey inspired by people like Sir Sikat and Pagsi to whom I dedicated the collection of essays.

I also dedicated it to my wife Mara and our sons, Paolo and Anton, who have accompanied me on my journey as a writer.

That journey began one afternoon when I became a nuisance, a “panggulo” in a small office in Quezon City. One of my regrets today is I never got to thank Mr. Porto for entertaining me that afternoon. On one of my next visits to the publishing house, after my poems were published, the staff broke the news: Mr. Porto had just died.

This book is also for him.


This article was based on the introduction to the essay collection How My Sons Lost Their Tagalog published in July. The author will read excerpts from the book at Filbookfest on October 19, 1:45 p.m at the San Francisco Main Library. He will also discuss the book on November 23 at 2 p.m. at the Carson Library, 151 E. Carson St., Carson, Calif.

Benjamin Pimentel 

Benjamin Pimentel 

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