The waiting room

18 December 2011

By Elmer Ordonez

IT is also known as the departure lounge for people of “un certain age” as they say in Quebec, although anyone above sixty or one who just survived a heart attack or is diagnosed with a terminal ailment may well be a passenger in waiting.

December 15 I turned 82. No big deal for Frankie Sionil Jose. The last time we met, he asked me to his lair where he types out his fiction or essays, “I have something to give you, “ and handed me a small ornate blue vase. “What’s this for?” I asked. “Well, I am giving my things away,” he said, “I am 87 and may go any time.” We both laughed. And that’s how it usually is in the waiting room. People are ready (or almost ready) to board, sometimes joking about their mortality or affliction.

The signs of getting ready are palpable. The writer reminisces in his column, or finishes a memoir, collects scattered pieces of writing – poems, stories, plays, essays—and inveigles a publisher, to please have his book out before he goes.

The departing one may also have forgiven those who have offended him, or made amends to those he has offended. Literary or ideological feuds that become personal happen among writers as in any group. They include National Artists for Literature. But no names here. Their disputes are reflected in what they write. Writers can get back at persons they dislike through their work. This could be a special area for literary investigation.

It is inevitable that writers of my generation have dwindled. The Ravens (a post-war offshoot of the venerable UP Writers Club founded by Jose Garcia Villa, Fred Mangahas, Salvador P. Lopez, and Jose Lansang in 1927) had originally 16 members (including Adrian Cristobal, Larry Francia, Alex Hufana, SV Epistola, and Pic Aprieto) are now down to 7, not counting Morli Dharam (a.k.a Anthony Morli) who had not been heard from in New York’s theater world where he immersed himself since the late 50s until we ran his obit in The Times last month. Still around are Virgie Moreno, Raul Ingles, Rony Diaz, Armando Bonifacio, Godo Roperos (in Cebu), Maro Santaromana (in Pennsylvania), and myself.

The Veronicans formed by Franz Arcellana, Hernando Ocampo, NVM Gonzalez (all National Artists) and others like Bienvenido Santos, Narciso Reyes, Cornelio Reyes, and Armando Malay before the war had all left the lounge.

The only writers group with a notable link to the 50s is the active Philippine Center of International PEN (Poetry. Essay, Novel). Founded in 1957 by writers, mostly Ravens, led by F. Sionil Jose, Philippine PEN just had a successful national conference on the theme “Archipelagic Feasts, Tropical Disasters” keynoted by Raven Rony V. Diaz, who spoke on the disastrous effects of climate change.

Gilda Cordero Fernando (“Forever 81”) spoke bravely in the panel “Apocalyptic Writing: Disaster and Imagination” which I organized but was unable to attend to my own apocalyptic moment. The conference approved a resolution urging writers to focus their creativity on saving the environment.

PEN continues to work (as it did during martial law) for the release of writers from prison—like the case of Ericson Acosta, poet/visual artist, now confined along with other political prisoners in the Calbayog, Samar jail. Acosta and prison mates were on hunger strike until December 10, Human Rights Day.

A literary/cultural landmark of the 50s is the Solidarity Bookshop on Padre Faura st., Ermita, Manila, run by Frankie and Tessie Jose. Sort of anachronistic in a neighborhood of high rise modern buildings, the two-story wooden building (built after the war) of a bookstore catering largely to the intelligentsia is among the first places visited by foreign writers (including Norman Mailer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Wole Soyinka, James Fallows, and recently Edward Jones) who are greeted by Frankie with “ Welcome to the den of iniquity.” The den is in the second floor where meetings, book launchings and little conspiracies are held. Here before his famous round table, Frankie invariably holds court, trying at one time to get the Lavas, Luis Taruc, and Casto Alejandrino reconciled. Underground literature also managed to be sold in the bookshop during martial law. Satur Ocampo and Bobbie Malay, old media friends of Jose, visited the bookstore when they were still on the run.

The “old world” of my 50s generation has given way to the new. Veronican Bienvenido Santos earlier expressed that much for his 30s generation (NVM and Franz Arcellana were still around) that “new and young actors” had taken over the stage. He had just received a literary award from the National Commission for Culture and Arts, together with Genoveva Matute, in 1995.

Raven Andres Cristobal Cruz once wrote that “to the Asian Filipino consciousness, the raven is a symbol of immortality, “expressed in the Filipino saying “pagputi ng uwak” – when the crow turns white, indeed “an intimation of immortality, which is what the artist/writer is.”

The poets in the waiting room may also be reflecting on William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” the city where one implores the sages to be “the singing masters of my soul” and “gather me into the artifice of eternity.”

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