The creative writing students in the small seminar room at Ateneo University in Metro Manila were answering my question about the relation of language to politics in the Philippines. With that youthful energy that is each generation’s greatest natural resource they talked about the “feudal system” Filipinos have lived under, about the centrality of village life, about the Filipino’s innately “romantic” soul and love of theater. The electric power had gone off—brownouts were lasting up to seven hours a day— and, in late May, the room’s temperature quickly soared. Just as suddenly, a rainstorm rushed across the sky, as if in a hurry to get somewhere else; afterwards, flame trees and acacias seemed to lean in the direction it had gone, like lovers left behind at a train station.
I was explaining to the class that anything might be the subject of a short-short. “A door,” I said, pointing at the door through which we had entered. “Or a table.” I touched the table around which we were grouped. “This morning,” I admitted, “it occurred to me that one might write a short-short about crossing a street in Manila.” The students laughed. “That’s not a short-short,” one said. “That’s a novel! A saga! An epic, at least!”
Because of the brownouts, traffic lights often did not work. Sometimes there were police to direct the flow of traffic, and sometimes there were not. I had been making my way with a group of faculty women from St. Scholastica’s College to a fast-food Chinese restaurant. I have traveled a lot and have never met a warmer, friendlier, more welcoming people than Filipinos. A good thing, too, I thought, as I imagined, marooned there on the traffic island, that I might have to give up all hope of returning home. I would marry, become a citizen and east my defiant but losing vote for Miriam Santiago, and grow old on my own little “island” among the more than 7,000 that make up the archipelago that is the Philippines. All around me were trucks, cars, taxicabs, jeepneys, tricycles, and pedicabs. Pedicabs are bicycles with sidecars; tricycles are motorcycles with sidecars; jeepneys, ostensibly another method of public transportation, are a mobile art form. This really is recycling. Jeeps left over from World War II are painted in elaborate, colorful detail, outfitted with model horses, dressed in flags and pennants, draped with purple curtains, and named. Banana Magnet, said one. Desert, said another, as if it were the punch line to a running, or rolling, joke. Last Waltz was the mournful title of a third. Then there was the jeepney that demanded, pugnaciously. Saint or Sinner: I felt put on the spot.
At St. Scholastica’s I had read a paper on the short fiction of women in the United States today. Everywhere I went, 1 met Filipino writers and scholars who were not only acquainted with the work of American writers—they were frequently acquainted with the writers themselves. A number had been to the International Writing Workshop in Iowa City. Ed and Edith Tiempo recalled being in Paul Engle’s class alongside the now late Flannery O’Connor. Mimeographing was expensive back then, Edith Tiempo said, so the students read their stories aloud in class. But they had to ask Engle to read O’Connor’s stories for her, because no one could understand that Georgia accent. “She had an annoying habit of twisting a lock of hair at her forehead,” Edith said, laughing softly, adding that when Engle found unconvincing a sex scene O’Connor had written the author responded, “Come out to my ear and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
I loved these stories and scribbled them down in my spiral notebook at night in my wonderful room in the Manila Hotel, where the MacArthur Suite can be booked for $1,400 a day and often is—by the Japanese, who, presumably, think $1,400 a day is not too much to pay for the right to report to their friends that they have slept in the MacArthur Suite. From my more modest room I could look out at Manila Bay with its twinkling cargo ships, the world coming and going and always bigger than I’d dreamed. It is stories like this that link us, make us members of a larger literary community. Gossip makes us real to one another.
Another writer, F. Sionil José prolific and outspoken, whose Three Filipino Women was recently published in the United States by Random House, explained to me that Melville and Emerson are the American writers “relevant” to him, because they made an American tradition, “throwing off the colonial influence.” He likes the contemporary black writers for the same reason.
Weaving—amazingly—among the cars were adults and children selling single sticks of gum, cigarettes, anything. A boy tapped on a window and opened his palm, begging. No doubt he lived, if he had any address at all, in the poor-beyond-saying Tondo district. I could say how seeing him made me feel, but I can’t say how he felt. The Filipino writers will have to tell us that. Every country finds its own words. And out of those words it constructs an idea of itself. Literature, also, makes us real to one another.
At the University of the Philippines, the splendidly lively National Artist Francisco Arcellana (“That means I get to be buried for free”) pointed out that deconstructionist theory comes from the French—”an overrefined culture,” he said nicely.
To be in search of a language with which to define one’s sense of oneself, one’s entire country—how exciting! And here in the West we are so eager to discard what we know that we turn a deaf ear even to our own words, eliminating the text, the author, the authoritative voice. I began to understand the lure of the East, the temptation to believe in something besides criticism.
Arcellana was inducting students into the UP Writing Club. He made them raise their right hands. “I promise to write, write, WRITE,” he had them repeat after him. “And never be silenced!”
I was clutching a light canvas bag a former student had made for me. She had printed my name on one side and the cover art from one of my novels on the other, and I used the bag to carry the books I would be giving readings from. I was also carrying my paper on women writers. And I was also carrying a Sportsac bag that held mv money and passport and cosmetics and sunglasses and sunscreen. I was clutching this stuff and standing there, in the middle of a street in Manila, and waiting for traffic to slacken, and these arc some of the thoughts I was thinking.
Why did the writer cross the road? It was never simply to get to the other side.