Monday, December 10, 2007

PEN at 50

I must confess to a great deal to anxiety as the 50th anniversary of the Philippine PEN finally arrived. I was slated to chair a panel that included Krip Yuson, Charleson Ong, Vim Nadera and Mel Ylagan - all senior writers and accomplished as hell. The evening before, Ian Casocot asked me if my paper was ready.

ME: What paper?

IAN: The paper you're presenting.

ME: ...

So after the launch of PSFIII, I had dinner and rushed home and sunk into deep panic. PEN is populated by all sorts of writers, especially realist writers, and I wanted to take the opportunity to present spec fic.

When I arrived (after having gone to the wrong National Museum - who knew there were two along Burgos?), F. Sionel Jose asked me to walk with him because he wanted to talk to me. Oh no, I thought.

SIR FRANKIE: Dean, I want you to be more involved in PEN.

ME: ...

SF: A writer friend of mine just died and I'm also getting old. Soon I will be gone, and we need younger writers like you.

ME: ...

SF: I think the reason you avoid us older writers is that you feel condescended upon, since these people act high and mighty with their PhDs and such.

ME: ...

SF: When I was in my twenties, post-war, we knew all the senior writers. We called them by their nicknames. They were not condescending at all. We'd talk and argue with them. Don't allow yourself to be intimidated. I know what you're doing and writing. I expect to see more of you.

ME: Yes, sir.

SF: Okay?

ME: Yes, sir. I mean, yes, sir.

And he punctuated his sentences by tapping my left leg with his cane. I didn't tell him that I, in fact, did not feel that anyone was condescending at all - in fact, a lot of the writers and academics I've met have been quite supportive. But what he said was basically true - his observation of my absence (his secretary has been inviting me to various PEN meetings and get-togethers for almost a year now). But I wanted to have several books under my belt before I signed up. But that rationale was demolished when Marj Evasco told me to just sign up, so I did and became a member of PEN right before the first panel. At any rate, my conversation (very one-sided) with Sir Frankie was quite surreal, as well as encouraging. There are many other writers of my generation who deserve more than me to be encouraged by Sir Frankie - Sarge Lacesta, Vince Groyon, for example. But I am very thankful for his kind words.

When the time came for my panel, all my anxieties were gone. I was comfortable with everyone (even Dr. Ylagan who I just met that day), and employed a little levity to lighten up the proceedings (which wasn't difficult considering the sense of humor of Vim, Krip and Charlson).

When I presented my "paper" on spec fic, I did my best to explain what it was, told everyone why it was important and why it was just as valid as realism in terms of being able to articulate the Filipino experience/human condition through the lens of genre, why it is one of the best ways to claim/reclaim younger readers. I explained that while realism teaches us to write literature that matters, it is the readers who select what literature matters to them. And we need an audience. We need readers. We need to write for readers, and not just fellow writers and academics.

People who know me know that I am fond of using the "boy on a carabao" scenario from realism as an example of stories that while well-written do not find an audience with certain Filipino readers who are looking for something else. Before my talk, I decided to be prudent and not speak of that or use that example because I did not want to offend the realists - but found myself doing it anyway. I phrased it in such a way that I did not diss realism (because I appreciate and acknowledge its value) but instead placed it side-by-side with carabao that talks back to the boy - to show that there is more than way to tell a story, and that a sense of wonder is wonderful on its own. Yes, I was in demagogue mode, haha.

During the Q&A portion, one elder writer opined that he refused to read scifi because it he could not imagine it coming true (implying, once again, that only realism - or what could be - is more important and valid than "what if?). The audience waited for the inevitable argument, but instead I told him that since lunch was next on schedule that I'd sit down with him, and that he'd be a convert after we ate. :)



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