Photos courtesy of Arkibong Bayan, Dr. Elmer Ordoñez, and Ishmael Ordoñez
Maybe, it is his favorite—dark pants and that green-ochre polo shirt with vertical black stripes. He had worn a similar outfit (or was it the same?) in December 2016, when he launched “Red Poppies on the Road” at the same bookstore.
With his trademark white flat cap and black-rimmed eyeglasses, octogenarian writer Elmer A. Ordoñez had a quiet dignity about him as he welcomed guests and old friends at the launching of his latest book, “Father’s Doppelganger” at the Popular Bookstore in Quezon City last August 4.
Like his 2016 launch, the room glowed with the warmth of the old and the familiar; men and women who shared Ordoñez’ past and those who followed his writing career, now spanning more than 60 years.
The book launch emcee, Palanca Award winner Terra Daffon, had Ordoñez as her English teacher at the University of the Philippines.
“English majors,” Ordoñez fondly called his former students—Daffon, Pris Navarro Fernando, fictionist Jenny Romero Llaguno, and multi-awarded poet, essayist, freelance journalist, and former Philippines Graphic literary editor Marra PL Lanot.
“Since 2012, Elmer has been writing up a storm, seemingly in a race against time and mortality, putting his life, his millieu, our shared history between the pages of a book,” Daffon said.
In 2012, Ordoñez was 83 years old. And in a matter of six years, he managed to publish a book every other year: “Sitting in the Moonlight and other Stories” (2012), “Snows of Yesteryear” (2014), Red Poppies on the Road (2016), and the latest, “Father’s Doppelganger” (2018).
His being a prolific writer has not been hampered by what Daffon described as the “day to day concerns” of Ordoñez: insomnia, hearing problems, erratic WiFi that keeps him away from Facebook, and fear of raging floodwaters that might inundate his home in Imus, Cavite.
Ordoñez admitted that he is hard of hearing, nowadays. “I usually have hearing aids but it’s practically useless because of the ambient noise. In a way, I am already used to the silence. Quiet places and quiet moments.”
National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera is another admirer of Ordoñez’ capacity to churn out books. “What I like about Elmer is he’s always coming out with a new book. It is something that I could not keep up with.”
Lumbera added: “I’m glad to be a part of the book launching and the book that he has launched is a memoir and I’m amazed at the memory that he has of events. Hard of hearing as he is now, he has so many memories from his past. That’s something that I admire.”
The past beckoned to all the novelists, poets, short story writers, essayists, art critics, journalists, and teachers of literature that gathered at the book launch.
For some, memory took the form of pure literature, for others, it reverberated with the political activism of the 60s and 70s.
Gémino H. Abad, poet, literary critic, and Professor Emeritus at the UP, regaled the crowd with his story of how he became a writer before he met Ordoñez.
“In high school, somebody for Christmas gave me collected poems of Robert Frost. And mainly because he (Frost) was a farmer, I thought that it was the way to poetry. So, I went to UP Los Baños,” Abad said, adding, “it didn’t work out.”
He continued and said he later read that the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. And so he and his friend entered the seminary.
Abad said his friend left after two years while he left the Jesuit Order after three years—about the time he entered the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA).
“When I graduated, I entered the English Department where Elmer was chair. Upon graduation, I was a teaching assistant. Utusan [maid]. That was in ’63. Up to now, I’m still teaching there. Elmer was my chair and my professor. He’s a teacher who encourages the English majors,” Abad said.
Rony V. Diaz was the first fiction writer Ordoñez knew back in the early 1950s. They both belonged to a young writers’ group known as the Ravens, which included Andres Cristobal Cruz, SV Espistola, Virginia Moreno, Adrian Cristobal, Alejandrino Hufana, and Hilario Francia Jr., among others.
They were writers in their early 20s who from time to time beat veteran writers like Francisco Arcellana and NVM Gonzales in the Palanca Awards.
Now 86 years old Diaz, has a vivid recollection of Martial Law and how it made his friend a “displaced person.”
“Martial Law caught Elmer in Malaysia. He was then an exchange student and a common friend of ours, Blas Ople, told me, why don’t I bring back, Elmer?” said Diaz
He recounted that he wrote Ordoñez a letter but that he did not answer. He wrote again and this time received a reply, stating “he (Ordoñez) did not want to get arrested.”
Ordoñez, according to Diaz, was “part of the Kabataang Makabayan and all sorts of movements that were ripe in UP at that time. And I don’t know if you feared for your life or for your freedom. But Blas made it very clear that if you were to return to the Philippines, you would come under his protection, that nothing bad would happen to you.”
Diaz said Ordoñez chose to stay in Malaysia and moved on as a displaced person to Canada. He lost touch with Elmer and that the next time they met was when he had returned to the Philippines.
“It was a happy moment for us. I remember that Alex Hufana and I met you in UP for the first time and we had coffee at the basement and you tried to tell us of your experiences in Canada and in Malaysia. I refused to talk about that because what I wanted to talk about was literature. And so I was trying to stir (the discussion), but you wanted to talk about the politics of that time,” Diaz recalled.
He also remembered that Ordoñez left for an important meeting that evening. There was a teach in organized by Joma Sison.
“Elmer, obviously, had more Marxist ideas about politics, which, of course, I appreciated because it drove me to read Marx, Lenin, and so on. Obviously, their ideas did not jog my mind and so I dropped the ball and that ended my adventure in politics,” Diaz said.
The voice of political dissent is given life in“Father’s Doppelganger.” It lives in the narrative of the Filipino-American war; the failure of the first Philippine Republic to defeat the new colonizers and the ironic success of what was called as the American policy of “benevolent assimilation.”
The book tells of a chapter of Philippine history not much talked about. The scenes come across as real and disturbing because they force us to ask questions about what really happened during the Filipino-American War.
Jenny Llaguno read the first Chapter: When the Gringos came to town.
“…My father David was nine years old when he saw the first American soldiers enter the town of Villasis. They were carrying what we later learned were Krag rifles, and wearing dark shirts with khaki trousers, debursigue—shoes with canvas leggings and wide-brimmed, dark-brown felt hats. As they marched by David’s family’s bahay na bato, a house made of stone with a thatched roof, he caught the stench of sweat and of mules carrying army supplies, in a parade of some hundred foreign soldiers, whom his Spanish speaking elders called gringos. The townspeople were out in the streets gawking at them, whom the young ones started calling kano, from Amerikano.
The last of revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo’s troops had retreated northward after defending the ridge outside the town, taking potshots at the invaders crossing the shallow Agno. The bridge had been destroyed earlier by Filipino soldiers, so the gringos had to wade across the river with their burdened mules. An hour earlier, retreating Filipino troops in their blue and white cotton rayadillo, armed with Mauser rifles, had passed through the town shouting: “Viva la independencia! Long live independence!” on their way to the next town of Urdaneta to set up another line of defense.
The American troops marched to the town plaza and camped in the large church courtyard. The officers occupied the municipio, the town hall and made it their headquarters. There was no one left in the municipio, for the Republic officials and employees had gone home. With the Americans was a platoon of long-haired Filipinos in rayadillo and khaki who spoke in Pampango. Armed with Mausers and Krags, they had an American lieutenant as platoon leader and a Spanish noncommissioned officer, who divided the platoon into four squads of six or seven members; three squads were each led by a corporal and the fourth by a sergeant. The squads were sent out in four directions to check if the town was free of insurrectos, insurgents. By late afternoon, the teams returned, one towing a carabao loaded with sacks of rice, and the rest lugging chickens or pulling reluctant pigs on leashes. That evening, the Americans feasted on roasted chicken, barbecued pork, and boiled rice cooked by the Pampango-speaking Filipinos. They sang their marching songs, one of which went, “Damn, damn, damn the Filipino/ Cutthroat khakiac ladrone/ Underneath the starry flag, civilize ‘em with a Krag/ And return us to our own beloved home.”
“Father’s Doppelganger” is a fictionized biography of the Ordoñez family—his father, David and Elias, Ordoñez’ own character.
At the launch, the 88-year-old author said that anybody, everybody has a kind of persona. Everybody has a double, a pen name, a pseudonym or a nom de guerre.
“Doppelganger, by definition, has a spooky, ghostly definition. So, this is a story of my father’s double, doppelganger. Consider what I said in the prologue of my book—a fictionized biography of my father who was born in 1898 in Villasis, Pangasinan,” Ordoñez said.
He added: “It was to Elias to whom my father left his legacy. Well the legacy is for you, the reader, to determine. Anyway, there is a part of the prologue, where I entrust my narration to Elias Mangahas. It was the pen name I adopted in Montreal, where I have other pen names but that is another subject altogether.” G