Meanwhile, thinking to spread the word to the tabloid-reading masses via a newsprint edition, I had started translating the chronology into Tagalog early in 1997. When it was announced that the National Centennial Commission was sponsoring a literary contest to commemorate the 1898 Revolution, I shifted to essay mode, time to give credit where credit was due. I ignored warnings that my kind of Tagalog (I had written columns for the short-lived Diyaryo Filipino, 1989-1990, and experimented with Taglish in Isyu, 1995-’96), lightly peppered with English words as well as street slang that have become part of the vernacular, might not meet with the judges’ approval. The urge, nay, the challenge, was to write in a prose that was easy to read and understand.
Of course, I got my comeuppance. Honourable Mention was all Himagsikan sa EDSA—Walang Himala! got. I wondered if it was my prose, and the three other sanaysays honourably mentioned, written by academics, did not make the grade either? No one knew the rules? And then, again, it could have been different reasons across the four essays. In my case, given the government’s disinterest in studying EDSA, perhaps it was part of some conspiracy to belittle the event? As it happened, I had a backstory with the head judge for Sanaysay – the only category without major prizes awarded – Virgilio Almario aka Rio Alma, now National Artist for Literature. He was known to be an anti-Marcos activist poet in the first decade of martial law; but in the early eighties, he changed sides, supported Marcos. In 1983 he became involved in the Philippine Sesame Street Project to be co-produced by Imelda’s Ministry of Human Settlements and the Children’s Television Workshop, New York. He was to be the headwriter, even flew to New York with a core group (among them, Feny de los Angeles, head of research, and Noel Añonuevo, light-action-film director) for orientation on the Sesame system, but somewhere along the way, he lost the gig to me.
Project Director Lyca Benitez Brown offered me the job in March 1983, and I almost fell off my chair. At the time I was writing a TV review column, “Notes of a TV Junkie,” for Parade, a Times Journal magazine; I had heard about Sesame coming to Manila and was looking forward to reviewing, not writing, for it. I didn’t feel qualified; my only TV experience was writing for June Keithley’s late night talkshow directed by Peque Gallaga, and the only scripts I had written in Tagalog were Pinoy adaptations of a couple of Broadway plays directed by Leo Martinez, all for adults. Also, I had no desire to be part of a Marcos project, why not tap professional gag writers or children’s lit writers instead? But, Lyca said, TV gagwriters had too many bad habits, like resorting to slapstick, put-downs, and other no-no’s to get a laugh, while the academics who went all the way to New York had yet to learn how to write for TV in a Tagalog that pre-school kids would understand. She begged that I think of it as a project heaven-sent for Filipino children; she was convinced I could do it, having two kids of my own and some grounding in psychology would help, I could learn the ropes quickly and teach it to six new writers. As it turned out, I had to play catch-up with the six who had been through workshops, among them Rene Villanueva of UP’s Filipino Department, already a two-time Palanca winner, who was easily the best of them, the best of us. It was through him that I met Rio, who dropped in one day at the Sesame offices in the University of Life, and Rene introduced us, even as our backs were turned to each other, only our heads swinging for a quick glimpse and nod. “O, magsayaw na kayo!” Rene even joked, to laughter all around. I supposed Rio was curious about the scripts we were putting out. He must have heard that every single one went through three rounds of rigorous review and comment by the project director, the executive producer, the research team of psychologists, the art department, the studio directors or (as the case may be) light-action-film directors, and, for a time most difficult, by CTW producer Tippie Fortune, a big African-American lady who didn’t speak a word of Tagalog so that every script had to be translated into English for her, and she’d sit me down, one-on-one, and she’d make sure that every script ended on a funny note – she called it a “tag,” I called it a punchline. I learned, with great difficulty and humility, to take criticism without batting an eyelash, and to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until everyone was happy.
I was just getting the hang of it all when Ninoy was assassinated, and when my car with yellow ribbon was refused entry in Imelda’s UL, I knew it was time to go. Contracts were being renewed all around. I asked only for another month, time enough to tie up loose ends, put together a guidebook for writers, and prime Rene to take over. Poetic justice, sort of. I supposed that Rio was pleased. So 15 years later, when I spotted him at a drinking party some days after the Centennial Literary Prize awarding ceremonies, I didn’t hesitate to go up to him to say hi and to ask, just curious, what the problem had been with my EDSA essay, why only an Honourable Mention? After quickly getting over the shock of me daring to ask, he said, “Dapat nagpa-edit ka muna.” Ah, so, it was my Tagalog, not EDSA as subject matter. Fine. Early in 1999, when word spread that for lack of funds only major prize winners would be published by the UP Press, I despaired for Himagsikan anyway.
As fate would have it, that run-up to the new millennium saw Eggie Apostol back on the scene (she had retired from the Inquirer in the early ‘90s), this time to do battle with a President whose bullying tactics – a P101-million libel suit filed against The Manila Times in April, an advertisers’ boycott of the Inquirer whipped up in July – were a menace to hard-won press freedom. In September, Eggie launched Pinoy Times, a Monday-to-Friday tabloid for the Tagalog-reading masses, dedicated to exposing Erap’s evil ways and other political scandals. In February 2000 her People Power foundation published Himagsikan sa EDSA—Walang Himala! The book was also serialized in Pinoy Times.
Eggie had my Tagalog edited first, of course, by Marra Lanot of the charmed literary circle, and it was good to find that, apart from inconsistency in my use of ng and nang (that I always thought I had down pat, haha), the problem was not really my prose but my spelling, yes, my ispeling of certain words, Coryista not Corysta, tsismis not chismis, taumbayan not taongbayan, and my use of hyphens where they had been outlawed, how was I to know; and it wasn’t as if my spellings and hyphens compromised my prose or its comprehensibility in any way. But, hey, water under the bridge, ‘ika nga. Reviews of Himagsikan unfailingly praised my prose, how easy it was to read, even, “Ang sarap basahin!” National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera read it not too long ago (sent him one of my last copies) and he loved my Tagalog: “Ang dulas!” sabi niya.
Next: Multiple EDSAs