Photos courtesy of UP-ICW
It was a painstakingly slow day. Prior to the 23rd of November, I was already feeling under the weather: colds, cough, that perennial fatigue. This pain in my joints. It was the busiest seven days I’ve had this year.
I felt the world had turned only about an inch on its axis when we reached EDSA ‘round fifteen minutes past nine.
My sister from another father, writer Celina Cristobal, was kind enough to offer my family and I a ride. Our destination on that rather cold, windy evening: the U.P. Writers Night at the University Hotel.
Earlier we spent roughly an hour at the book launch of poet Alfred “Krip” Yuson, “Rizal+”. The coffee table version anthology features a chapter excerpt of my novel-in-progress, “My Dream of Café de Madrid”. Likewise, my daughter Rei Salud’s artwork appeared alongside other works on our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. The modest gathering kicked off sometime six in the evening at the Yuchengco Museum located at the ground floor of the RCBC Plaza in Makati City.
Time, it seemed to me, wanted to grind to a halt; it was nonetheless a riveting night. Getting my work anthologized is always a good sign. Having my daughter’s artwork grace the pages of my fictional story was a dream come true. I have always looked forward to the day I and my children would work in tandem on book projects. That day arrived on the night of Nov. 23.
Shortly after the obligatory book signing, which my daughter found enchanting (there were guests who asked her to sign the pages where her artwork appeared), Celina and my family bolted from the book launch to catch what hours remained of the UP Writers Night.
It seemed to me a mesmerizing thing that one so peculiarly anticipated as the UP Writers Night would again kick off this year. I had thought that budget constraints would force it to close shop sooner than we can pay for the beers.
Last time my wife and I were there, it fell a bit shy of expectations. When we arrived around half-past nine, the crowd had already thinned out. The older writers stayed, drank their beers and enjoyed the great company. The younger writers, however, were few and far between, and had decided to leave prior to the open mic.
Back then, I felt it had become a tedious and long-winded tradition, at best fatigued, if not altogether dead on one’s feet. I remember telling my wife, as we headed for home, how it would really be thrilling to see more than your average number of young writers hobnob with the seasoned authors. A momentary surge of optimism had told me that such a relationship is crucial if we were to curb this creeping darkness in our midst.
The night of the 23rd was everything I had hoped it would be. Again we arrived at half-past nine, with the University Hotel piazza teeming with people, easily a tad more than a hundred, writers and artists all, a good slice of whom were young.
Suffice it that I was at a loss to explain it, save for this one fact: that literature is alive and well in this benighted country. And that regardless of the setbacks and all-too-wasted differences in opinion and infighting among writers, a stage has been set for the purpose of fellowship and camaraderie.
The night of the 23rd, too, was memorable in the way that it celebrated the latest batch of Fellows of the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop for Mid-Career Authors. My wife and novelist Che Sarigumba, together with poet Niles Jordan D. Breis and the 57th UPNWW batch of fellows gathered and had their picture taken.
At the “Lung” Center, the designated smoking area of the hotel, I was greeted immediately upon my arrival by writers Karl Orit and Niles Jordan Breis. I was also met by prize-winning author Luna Sicat Cleto. Near the entrance sat Ateneo de Naga University Press director Kristian Sendon Cordero, award-winning poet En Villalis, and two young writers from De La Salle University, enjoying their beers.
Alongside the makeshift bar stood author and former U.P. Dean of Mass Communications Rolando Tolentino, reminding me that for this particular Writers Night, all beers were being served free of charge. Thanks to the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s generosity, I had enough to spare for books.
About five steps from where I picked up my share of San Mig Pale, I waved at U.P. Press Director and Fellow for Poetry in the Institute of Creative Writing (ICW) J. Neil Garcia. It was the perfect time to introduce him to a friend of mine, one of the writers of the Philippines Graphic, Jonah Basanta García.
There was no lack of good friends that night: award-winning poets Marne L. Kilates (the Philippines Graphic’s first Poet of the Year), Fidel Rillo and Vim Nadera. There was prize-winning novelist Charlson Ong, Head of the Department of Literature and the Humanities of University of Santo Tomas (UST) Joselito delos Reyes, UST professor emeritus Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, UST Publishing House director Ailil Alvarez, UST Literature professor Ralph Semino Galán, The Makata’s Dakila Cutab and prize-winning poet Mark Angeles.
It was here that I first met and shook the hands of author and UST professor Chuckberry Pascual. And yes, who could miss the lovely Bebang Siy, my daughter Likha’s ninang, and the venerable novelist Jose “Butch” Dalisay Jr., director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing. Both do stand out in a crowd.
I pretty much spent the latter part of that day catching up on old times with fellow authors I rarely see. By the time singer Joey Ayala sung what, to me, seemed like a cut from a new album, I was already seated in Kristian Sendon Cordero’s table, all ears to discussions on the writing of poetry, the necessity of artistic and committed literature in the era of the Alt-Right, and the question of whether there ought to be a measure of Science in the writing of verse, regardless of the boundaries poetic license may carry the poet.
Charlson Ong was only being true to himself when he belted out his favorite songs, and so did Celina Cristobal. They both lent class to what otherwise felt like a feral and wild Led Zeppelin concert. The ICW people did a great job at keeping the event lively.
Sometime half-past ten, I toured the newly installed University Bookstore and got myself a leatherbound journal, and two handsomely crafted hardcovers by the philosopher Plato and Stendhal. Cost me a king’s ransom.
I look forward each year to the U.P. Writers Night for several reasons: not only camaraderie and fellowship but union. To be with like minds. To learn more of the state of literature in the country. To plot out the hows and whys of best confronting the country’s problems through the generation and creation of stories. To remind people that without memory, which is the cornerstone of all literature, all efforts at reforms would come to nothing.
Let me end with a quote from Stendhal: “A free government is a government which does no harm to its citizens, but which, on the contrary, gives them security and tranquility. But ‘tis a long cry from this to happiness. That a man must find for himself; for he must be a gross creature who thinks himself perfectly happy, because he enjoys security and tranquility […] One is inclined to say that the source of sensibility is dried up in the people.”
I’m of the opinion that the sort of sensibility which brings success to our pursuit of happiness is only possible with the creation and enjoyment of good literature. This brings us back to our roots, to the long string of histories and achievements—even failures—that make us who we are.
To look back to the days of our birth and recognize humanity’s birthright, through the fledgling worlds and characters we create to tell our stories: what better way to remind ourselves that regardless of our struggles, our losses and laurels, there is reason still to hope.
Where poets, artists and storytellers flock in unison; where the world of letters come together, there the veritable Garden, where the light refuses to die, is born.
Kudos to the UP ICW for a job well-done. You’ve outdone yourselves this time. G