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A writer’s ‘baul’ |

Arts and Culture

A writer’s ‘baul’

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay -
Every writer should have a baul – a real wooden chest that you can fill up with all manner of treasure (or junk, as the more likely case might be). I keep one of these in my office, a baul that Beng and I bought many years ago as a hope chest for Demi but which I somehow managed to hang on to, since it went so well with the rest of my office and continues to serve as an emergency footstool and spare seat.

Of course it also fulfilled its primary purpose – devouring mounds of paper, things of sometime importance such as story drafts and bank statements that acquired a claim to permanence once they had lain fallow long enough. As much as I may complain about it of others, I’m an incorrigible pack rat myself, loath to toss out anything of putative value, even if that value should be obvious to no one else but me. Thus my baul has Philippine Collegian issues from 1970, manuscripts of Gregorio Brillantes bought at an auction, a story I wrote in 1973 too trashy to trash, and a clutch of receipts for itemized expenses including one for two bottles of beer at Ermita’s Shady Lane restaurant circa 1977 for the grand total of 10 pesos.

Among all that memorabilia is an envelope of letters I treasure most – letters to me from Bienvenido Muñoz Noriega Jr., the late and great Filipino playwright whose modern classic Bayan-Bayanan will be showing until this Sunday at the Rizal Mini-Theater in Ateneo, presented by Tanghalang Ateneo (tel. 426-6001).

Boy Noriega was my friend, colleague, fraternity brother, literary contest arch-rival, and guru. Just a few years ahead of me in UP but miles ahead in his assiduous education as a playwright, Boy was a genuine wunderkind – a professional economist who headed the Policy Coordination Staff of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in his early 20s and was part of the Philippine negotiating team for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in Geneva – thus the setting of 1976’s Bayan-Bayanan, a penetrating, poignant take on the Pinoy expatriate life, written long before even the term "OFW" came into being. Later he would move to the Philippine National Bank as one of its vice presidents.

But before all that – and over much of it – Boy and I were officemates and friends. We’d both found ourselves in NEDA – he as a logical extension of his economics degree, I as a walk-in feature writer, fresh out of martial-law prison, a college dropout eager to get a job. Our common mentor was Dr. Gerry Sicat, a generous and thoughtful leader who gave his people every opportunity to prove and improve themselves, sending Boy to Harvard for his MPA and I on a visit to the United States – my first trip abroad, in 1980 – for no greater reason than to impress a young writer with the vastness and complexity of life elsewhere on the planet. (And was I impressed by that brief taste of campus life in America – just a few years later I would leave my job to resume my studies and then to write and teach fulltime, which is where I still am.) When Sicat himself left NEDA, he gifted both Boy and me with our choice of any 10 books from his personal library.

Meanwhile Boy and I wrote plays like fiends, sometimes working on adjacent typewriters in the office; we took lunches and coffee breaks together, talking drama. (We both loved corned beef, stockpiles of which he kept at home.) In 1976 my entry Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot won first prize in the CCP’s one-act playwriting contest; Boy’s Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park won second; both plays would often tour together, as an evening’s entertainment. It was the first and the last time I would ever beat Boy Noriega in open competition, and it was the numbing regularity of my subsequent losses to him that drove me, in the 1980s, to shift from drama in Filipino to fiction in English, where I felt reasonably safe from him (although, ironically, he would later tell me that among his remaining dreams was to write a novel in English, even enrolling at UP to begin a PhD in English).

He was, to my mind, the best playwright we ever produced, bar none. His sense of the dramatic tended toward the deep, regretful sadness of foregone happiness and missed opportunities rather than riotous excess. ("You know what?" he told me one day, "All these problems our characters go through – they all come down to the search for happiness.") When I returned to school to finish my degree, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on him.

It was about this time of year, 11 years ago, when my blissful hermitage in a Scottish castle was broken by the terrible news of Boy’s death from cancer. I was too far away to condole properly with his family, but upon my return I found Boy’s letters – written from his own heady days in Harvard, where he was doing public administration but studying theater on the side – and gave copies of them to the family. My own copies have lain since in my baul, where I found them again the other day, and thus these excerpts – my own translations from Boy’s minutely scripted Filipino – which I’d like to share with you.

"Two other things occupy my time here – watching movies (five a week, on the average, unlike in Geneva where I’d see only three) and cooking. Mostly I watch the old greats and near-greats of European and American cinema. They serve as my entertainment. Cooking is a sacrifice I have to make, because the dorm food here is awful. I’m taking it as a change of routine, so I really can’t complain about it like I used to.

"Of all my subjects, my drama course is the most exciting. We’re taking up all the major modern dramatists. We’re done with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw, Jarry, Wagner, Dumas fils and Buchner, and coming up will be Brecht, Pirandello, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, etc. The best playwrights for me remain Ibsen and Chekhov – Ibsen for characterization and Chekhov for his mastery of dramatic devices such as dialogue, choice of moments, verbal counterpoint, etc. You know, it’s only now that I’m discovering why my Bayan-Bayanan is so Chekhovian. When I come home, I can return to it and do a final revision because I know better now how to tighten and improve it. Another thing I like about Chekhov is how he led his life – shy, pensive, but sure about what he was doing, unlike others so boastful and rebellious that their own lives proved more interesting than their work. Our lecturer in drama is very good – the students applaud at the end of the lectures." (Harvard, Sept. 3, 1978)

You know, before 1973, I was always thinking that I would die young – around the age of 40. I even wanted then to die young. But now that I’m approaching 27, I’m almost sure that I’ll live beyond 60 – and now I’d like to live that long. There’s so much more I want to do, and I need more time to do them well. One of my honest ambitions in life is to write 12 to 20 truly good plays – those with universal and timeless qualities. You see, what I’d like to happen is that when I die, a play of mine would be presented every year. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind for my country. I’d also like to do as many films (and I’d like to direct them as well, because that’s how film is these days, with the director as the principal auteur) – but I still need to learn a lot, and I’ll need to get lucky, which is why this part of things looks doubtful.

"I’ve also thought of translating Samuelson’s Economics into Filipino (his textbook runs to more than 800 pages) and to teach it in Filipino, but I’ve no time. I’d really like to contribute to the promotion of Filipino – I share Rolando Tinio’s belief that this is the way toward our own culture, toward growth models suited to the way we live, to our perspective as Filipinos. It’s a delight to see how original our composers and songwriters have become, and much of this is because they’re now thinking in their own language. This is why I’m hoping to make Economics in Filipino as my contribution to economics, but I still can’t find the time.

"You mentioned writing prose in English. If you ask me, you should forget it. First of all, you really don’t have an audience there, or else you’ll just end up playing second fiddle to native English and American writers. Second, you can’t possibly sustain this there, and I’ll bet that you’ll never leave the Philippines just to write in English in America or somewhere else. I know that you’re always reading in English, but I don’t know if you’ve really imbibed the flavor of the language…. Third, in reading and writing in English, you’ll absorb many cultural values. This isn’t bad as long as it’s relevant to our life there in the Philippines. It’s up to you." (Harvard, Jan. 6. 1979)

Well, my dear friend Boy, you happily got some things right – and sadly, others wrong. About the English, I really don’t know – but it was you who drove me to it, so don’t blame me. About one thing I’m absolutely sure – in drama, which you most enjoyed, you were the very best of us.
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at

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