Dreaming in English

By Danton Remoto
The Business Mirror
Front Page

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.


An Affair with English

By Danton Remoto
Business Mirror Newspaper
Front Page
July 21, 2008

This column is part of the series on Planet English sponsored by the British insurance company Pru-Life to promote the use of the English language and English writing in the Philippines.


HOW did you begin to write? And why in English?

Friends and strangers alike would ask me that question. But the notion of beginning still surprises me until now.

As a child, I loved to draw, to memorize in my mind’s eye images of the passing day. I also loved to read—I would finish reading my English textbooks in one week, when we were supposed to read them for the whole year. I read ravenously and I read everything—the ingredients in a can of soup, the newspaper my father bought every day, the Philippine Journal of Education my mother subscribed to, the ten-volume Children’s Classics that an uncle had given to us.

I grew up in Basa Air Base, Pampanga, in a small white house with a sloping roof and French windows. My father was a soldier, when soldiers were still honorable, and my mother taught Music in school. The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories by the peerless Gregorio Brillantes was the first book I bought with my own money. Listen to the reasons he writes, spoken in the third person.

“The answer . . . was tied up somehow with the town in Tarlac where he was born, and the acacias beside the house where he grew up, the sounds that wind and rain made in them. In that house, its rooms suffused with a clear white light in his memory, he learned that words, combinations of them, could unlock the doors to fancy and fable: the strange lands visited by Gulliver, Lord Greystoke shipwrecked on the African shore . . . .”

Memory is the mother of all writing, it has been said, and many of my memories are tied up with the books I read in English, or imprinted in my mind in English. I was born of a generation when you were fined five centavos if you spoke a word of Tagalog in school, and you did not only learn in English—you also had to be excellent in it! Essays written with a good hand in perfect English were marked 100 and tacked on the bulletin board for the entire world to see.

After my father resigned from military service, we moved to Quezon City. Our textbooks included the Philippine Prose and Poetry series, published in the 1950s and constantly reprinted. It collected the brightest and the best writing in English done by Filipinos, and I was amazed at its quality. I still remember “The Scent of Apples” by Bienvenido N. Santos, where the photograph of a Filipina in a terno is slowly fading in a crumbling house. I remember “May Day Eve” by National Artist Nick Joaquin, whose long, first sentence is also its first paragraph—a startling, shimmering train of words that sinuously moves from page to page. It left me breathless.

I went to college at the Ateneo—my prize for winning the plum spot in a nationwide essay-writing contest for high-school students, in English. The prize said I could go to a school of my choice, and I went to the Ateneo, because it was the school nearest my house and I could walk to and from school. One day in college, the writer Linda Ty-Casper came and gave us a workshop.

Mrs. Casper was the valedictorian of her class at the UP College of Law and has an MA in Law from Harvard, but she chose to write novels about Philippine history—in English. She affected no airs, was quiet and dependable, like the maroon Volkswagen that picked her up from her parents’ house in Malabon and brought her to Ateneo every day. I was young and shy, given to dark moods I could never understand, but the words of Mrs. Casper were most instructive.

“We can survive almost anything, as long as we know that what we are suffering has been suffered before. When our time comes to falter, we can take comfort in the small, triumphant gestures that rendered someone, very much like ourselves, indestructible despite death. Or we can ignore literature and banish ourselves from our own lives.”

When you are young and in love with English, these words could make your day. I knew, then, that I wanted nothing else in the world, except to write. My days began to blaze with happiness because I could put order to the chaos—even the sadness—of life.

I was dazed with words. I kept a journal where I wrote poems, shards of memory, the tug of dreams. During those days, as Marcel Proust would put it, “an hour [was] not merely an hour. It [was] a vase filled with perfumes, plans, sounds and climate.”

I was in love with English and I was in love with words. I knew, then, that I was finally home.