By Danton Remoto
The Business Mirror
This article forms part of a series on the importance of English language and writing commissioned by the British insurer Pru-Life UK. The series is published every Monday on the front page of Business Mirror.
In her introduction to Stories, Kerima Polotan said: “Life scars the writer but he is not without weapons of vengeance. The art [of writing] is a prism that he can use to refract human experience. That one can write about something gives him courage to endure it; that he has written about it gives him, if not deeper understanding, some kind of peace. In other words, the writer is first a human being before he is anything else, prone, like much of mankind, to fits of joy and pain. What happens to those around him – and yes, to him – is legitimate material, but only if he is able to illumine it with a special insight.”
I enrolled at the Ateneo for a Management degree, but my heart was not in it. Every day I went to the Rizal Library and sat near the books in PS 9991 – Philippine writing in English. I would get the books, read the names of the Ateneo writers who have borrowed them (Gilda Cordero Fernando, Rolando Tinio, Eman Lacaba, Freddie Salanga), and borrowed the books.
I talked to my father and told him I wanted to shift to Interdisciplinary Studies, so I could choose the English subjects I wanted to take – and have my Management subjects credited as well. He reluctantly agreed. So the next semester I was on a roll. During our first day in Modern Poetry on the third floor of Bellarmine Building, the teacher arrived in a brown jacket, his hair tousled by the wind.
My teacher was Professor Emmanuel Torres, and he taught us how to see. Before his class, I did not like poetry too much, preferring instead to read nonfiction, since I thought they were the real stuff. But Professor Torres introduced to us – in English translations –Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Verlaine and Rilke, Neruda and Garcia Lorca. We also read the lords of the English language – T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stegner, e.e. cummings. Why, he even taught us the songs of the Beatles – the mop-haired gods from England – since he considered their songs as poems.
My professor, who went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, taught us to listen to the sounds of words rising and falling. He reminded me of the words of Joseph Conrad in his introduction to The Nigger of the Narcissus: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”
Writing in English is not an easy thing because it is not our first language. But as they say, if you can dream in it, then you can write it.
I shared my room with my brother, and he said he would wake up to hear me talking in my sleep – in English. Instead of being embarrassed, I would smile. For in school, Professor Torres was in his element, tearing our juvenilia apart with irony and wit. But I was not daunted. I have always been brave, especially when dealing with things I like to do.
And so every Monday morning, I stepped into the Art Gallery where Professor Torres was also the curator. I would show him my latest poems in English, which he would welcome with a smile. Silently he would read my poems, his red ball pen poised in the air, then like an arrow it would hit the page to delete a word here, a phrase there. He would return my poems with a sly smile, calling them “effusions.” I would thank him and say goodbye.
I continued writing. One of the personal essays I wrote was “A Quick Visit to Basa.” I went to the Art Gallery one hour before class started, so I could consult with my Professor. He said he liked the essay, but it could be improved. So we went through it sentence by sentence, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, the way he did it with our poems.
He always told us to avoid stereotyped situations and words, which he called “rusty razors.” Later, he said that my essay “is written by somebody on his way to being a writer.” I was happy and went home as if I had won the lotto. Five years later, that essay would win in the Don Carlos Palanca Award in Literature.
After graduation from college, I flew to Dumaguete City to attend the Silliman University National Writers’ Workshop run by the formidable husband-and-wife team of Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo and his wife, Dr. Edith. The Silliman Experience has become a rite of passage for any young Filipino writer. While en route to Dumaguete City, I read in the newspaper that I had won in a poetry-writing contest. I wanted to jump up and down, but since I could not, I just looked outside the plane. Literally and otherwise, I was up in the clouds.
I have never gone down since.