Philippine Center of International PEN
The auric gift of the word
In this nondescript section of Padre Faura St. in Malate, a plethora of worlds unfold in the books that line the shelves and stands inside literary titan F. Sionil Jose’s Solidaridad Bookshop the moment one steps in. The little shop’s significance in Philippine literary history immediately makes itself felt, swirling around each newcomer like a subtle drug that endows on the visitor a magnificent feeling. You wonder if all lairs of National Artists are like this: even the air has preserved pieces of national history so much so that you find yourself involuntarily breathing slowly, carefully, if you must be intoxicated into wonder.
The tinkling of small bells alert the lady at the counter to your entry. “I’m here for Mr. Jose,” you say, uncertain whether that is too inadequate, or on the other hand, too brash. But she directs you to the stairs at the back of the shop, and you offer her a nod of appreciation.
The steps creak under your weight as you ascend to the writer’s office and the headquarters of the Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists—the international association of writers originally founded in London to promote literature and fight for writers’ rights).
The National Artist founded the Philippine Center fifty years ago, in 1957, after an auspicious trip to the United States. He is an active member up to this day, and serves as de facto adviser to younger scribes, who dearly and reverently call him “Manong,” the Ilocano term for “big brother.”
“In 1955, I met Malcolm Cowley,” Jose starts, with wryness. He must tell this story very often.
Cowley was then an editor at Viking Press. Cowley was a significant figure in American letters as an editor, poet, novelist, and journalist, whose aggressive decisions seemed off but changed perceptions on many a writer, one of whom is generally agreed to be William Faulkner.
“He asked, ‘Do you have the PEN in the Philippines?” muses Jose, “and I said, ‘What’s that?’”
With his curriculum vitae, it is so easy to assume he had known it all along. But the answer would make Jose have to drop by the PEN headquarters in London on his way home. There he would meet—“What was the name again?” Jose turns to his wife, Tessie, before remembering and resuming—James Curver, then the international PEN secretary, who gave him the proper orientation, and instructions on how to set up the Philippine Center.
After consultations, the Philippine Center would be up in only two years, with Jose as the first National Secretary and US Educational Foundation head, Alfredo Morales, as the first chairman.
The first names in the membership inspire awe: Teodoro Agoncillo, Renato Constantino, Adrian Cristobal, and Blas Ople. Claro M. Recto would be the Jose Rizal lecturer in the first national convention in 1958. Recto articulated his views and dissent regarding the domination of the United States in the political, economic and cultural life of the nation. The Philippine Center of International PEN had arrived, and it meant business.
Bastion and burden
It has not always been peaky business, however. But in the beginning, the upstart group made its presence felt.
“The 50’s was a time of resurging nationalism,” narrates current PEN secretary Elmer Ordoñez. “Comment, our journal of ideas, was born when PEN started.” This was not to everyone’s liking, as there was a campaign to brand as communist anyone who was against US policies.
“The atmosphere induced fear and urged people to become conformists. We tried to counter that climate and emphasized that we should not be afraid of ideas,” Ordoñez adds.
Jose himself had doubts the organization would last, as there were only a handful of writers who stood ground against oppression. A lot of writers would not be as vocal and as pursuing as regards professional, much less national, woes.
“I do not blame them,” Jose says in hindsight. “They had families. They had stomachs to feed. In this country, it is difficult enough just to be a writer. If his writing, or freedom to write, is taken away, the writer who is only trying to make a living is no more.”
And repression had not even hit high yet. The greater tests for writers would come under Martial Law. Jose, who had been supportive of Marcos’ agrarian programs, began to oppose staunchly the dictator’s onion-skinned, vengeful reactions to criticism from writers. More joined in. The response: prison time for writers, and a withdrawal of tens of thousands of pesos in fund support to Jose’s numerous projects. When he would not stop, government operatives broke into the Solidaridad bookshop and made a symbolic threat: they broke his Parker pen. But the PEN trudged on.
“Bureaucratization was a form of bonding for us writers during those times since many of us were imprisoned, pressed and threatened because of our views,” Jose says. “It is always comforting to know that there are people outside the prison cells and even outside the country who sympathized with you.”
When Marcos imprisoned several writers like Bienvenido Lumbera, Boni Ilagan, Mila Aguilar, and Jose Lacaba, other PEN members fashioned solutions to release them. They got in touch with media to make sure that the situation was well-publicized. The group issued resolutions and petitions. They even went into the extent of visiting Marcos in Malacañang to negotiate. Jose still has one petition, signed by him and other writers, fondly preserved in his study. “Go get it,” he would usually tell his wife, who would gladly oblige, “so I can show them.”
The PEN continues to support and defend writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and even worse, killed for airing their views, through a special committee initiated in 1960.
In one of the Philippine Center’s monthly meetings, the agenda regarding the fiftieth anniversary convention takes a momentary backseat. Bulacan-based writer Jun Cruz Reyes has digressed, but has the entire room listening intently.
“They have taken over my small library, where I conduct my small literary workshops,” he wails in Filipino. Soldiers have apparently shut him down. “I have received threats, but I have done nothing but express my views through my writings.”
The forum immediately agrees to issue a resolution, an aerial of sentiment.
Apart from oppression, the organization has kept up with the literary zeitgeist, taking cudgels for women’s causes.
“During the late 80’s, after the People Power Revolution, we started forming committees that will address how women’s writings can be well-accepted by the reading public,” says PEN board member Marjorie Evasco.
“Lina Espina Moore, Estrella Alfon, Virgie Moreno, and Mina Estrada served as our models in promoting woman’s writings.”
The Philippine Center closely follows updates from the PEN-International women’s desk, headed by Judith Buckrich, where concerns of women writers, especially those who are oppressed because of their gender, are taken and resolved.
The PEN has also pushed for Filipino writers writing in the vernacular.
“Whenever there are PEN conferences we are given the privilege to present our works in translation,” shares Susie Tan.
The next fifty years
December 8-9, 2007. Adding to the wonderful heritage that the National Museum possesses, is the monumental two-day celebration of the golden anniversary of the country’s most prestigious literary institution.
Themed, “Literature, Nation and Globalization,” the event showcased the golden chronicles and adventures of the Philippine literary community toward the promotion of freedom of expression through letters.
“The Philippine PEN has exposed Philippine literature to globalization. It has made different writers in the country aware that they belong to one community,” National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera stresses in the keynote. This vital role of literature and the Philippine PEN is even more contextualized by Jose, who says writers are the creators of the nation’s identity in spite of apathy among young readers. The challenge, he says, is for old writers to be open and understanding to the needs of the youth.
A series of literary sessions on pertinent issues pepper the two-day conference.
Poet and nonfiction writer Merlie Alunan and fictionist Macariu Tiu emphasize that it is culture that thoroughly drives the Filipino creative writing.
“They reflect the character and ways of our people,” Alunan says.
This is later echoed by playwright Amelia Bonifacio, in asserting that national literature is never confined to just one place or time.
But Muslim writer Pads Paporo contests—if literature is really without frontiers, then why not many of the Muslim writers had been recognized?
“Let this anniversary give way in the institutionalization of Muslim writers in Mindanao.”
But it is the session on Philippine Poetics that truly leaves a mark in the groundbreaking celebration. Tackling the Filipino sense of language, poet Gemino Abad comments that skill is shown through the use of form, the way writers use words in placing harmony among the disarray of letters and ideas. UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies director Ophelia Dimalanta adds that the sophistication with words that progresses over time usually makes a good and seemingly divine-inspired poetry.
“You must love words, ideas, and rhythm with all your capacity,” Dimalanta shares. “If you’ve been exposed to the craft, it will be there at the back of your mind.”
True enough, with all the writers and aspiring writers alike present in the numerous corners of the National Museum in those two days and in the vast islands of our archipelago, it is the same affection and passion that binds them and helps them sustain their craft. This intense feeling is also the one responsible for keeping literature thriving and burning for the next fifty years. With reports from Verity Ayrah B. Cabigao
International PEN Charter
Pen affirms that:
1. Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.
2. In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large should be left untouched by national or political passion.
3. Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.
4. PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organized political and economic order renders a free criticism of government, administrations, and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.
The Jose Rizal lecturers
Claro M. Recto
Teodoro M. Locsin
Carlos P. Romulo
Leon Ma. Guerrero
Rodrigo D. Perez III
Marcelo B. Fernan
Maximo V. Soliven
Isagani R. Cruz
Isagani A. Cruz
Ambeth R. Ocampo
F. Sionil Jose
Eugenia Duran Apostol
Horacio de la Costa
Lorenzo M. Tañada
Salvador P. Lopez
F. Sionil Jose
Ma. Lourdes Jacob
Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008