Remembering,writing, revising
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2019 - 12:00am

“How did you begin to write?”

Friends and strangers alike ask me that question. But the notion of beginning still surprises me until now. I cannot pin down the particular moment when I told myself I would write.

As a child of four, it was always an agony for me to eat. I would sometimes stop in the middle of my meal to stare into space, because in my mind’s eye in seemed to see images – the events of the day rolling before my eyes, scenes from a movie or a television show I had seen – all of them seemingly haloed with light. With the passage of the years, this sense of seeing things as if for the first time, and as if bathed in light, became more frequent – and more intense. Something has grown inside me, both a need and an ache to give shape and weight to the elusive moment alive in my mind – to one particularly keen memory, to time gliding away, perhaps? – and the only way for me is through words.

All these observations became more concrete for me when I began reading the short stories of Gregorio C. Brillantes. His book, The Distance to Andromeda, was the first book of short stories I bought with my own money when I was a 16-year-old college freshman at the Ateneo de Manila University and a scholar of the Department of Education for winning in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Letter-Writing Competition. The early stories that Gregorio Brillantes wrote, the religious and metaphysical meanderings collected in that book, helped shape my sensibility and sensitivity when I was just “beginning” to write. I felt a warm kinship with the characters in these early stories: young men who grew up in the province but are now studying in the city, somewhat lost and drifting, but knowing that somewhere along the way, they will find their moorings and chart their own directions. In those stories, I saw his metaphor of life as a journey – with its dangerous turns and surprising joys – toward some destiny still unknown to the young characters in his stories.

My father was a soldier with the Philippine Air Force, when soldiers were still more honorable; my mother taught Music in a public elementary school and played the piano, organ, accordion, recorder and harmonica. Instead of the train’s whistle in Brillantes’ boyhood, I woke up to the sound of jet fighter planes roaring in the sky – or to the sounds of the musical instruments my mother or her students played every weekend morning and afternoon.

When I was 16 years old, I won the first prize in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Letter-Writing Contest for Young People. The first prize was P3,000; a four-year university scholarship; and five albums of ASEAN stamps from the original member countries of the ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines. Singapore, and Thailand.

With the money, I bought a pair of clear contact lenses, for I was beginning to be vain. With the scholarship, I enrolled at the Ateneo de Manila University, since it was the school nearest our house in Project 4 and it was the most expensive school at the time. My father also said it had a good reputation, as proven by the fact that our national hero, Dr. Jose P. Rizal, had studied there.

I enrolled for a Business Management degree. Unfortunately, I failed in Algebra. Instead of studying for this subject, every afternoon I would read the books on Philippine literature found in the Rizal Library, the shelves beginning with the call number PS 9991. Aside from the stories of Gregorio C. Brillantes in The Distance to Andromeda, I also read his later – and longer stories – collected in The Apollo Centennial: Nostalgias, Predicaments, and Celebrations.

The other Filipino writers I read were Kerima Polotan’s Stories and The Hand of the Enemy. I particularly admired the way Polotan wrote her prose, a prose which is both musical and very precise, her words and their phrasing having the fluidity of water. I also read the stories of Bienvenido N. Santos in You Lovely People, touched by the exile’s sadness especially most evident in his now-classic short story, “Scent of Apples.” In my senior year, I read Brother My Brother and noted the very Filipino traits of his characters – sensitive and easily hurt, but also charming and easy to please.

Moreover, I read the poems of Alfrredo Navarro Salanga that were published in various periodicals and later collected in several posthumous books, as well as the poems of Emmanuel Torres in Angels and Fugitives, Shapes of Silence, and The Smile on Smokey Mountain and Other Poems. I also read the poems in Filipino written by Rolando S. Tinio and Jose F. Lacaba, precious copies of which were archived in the Special Collections of the Rizal Library.

One day in 1980, the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies with Fr. Joseph A. Galdon, S.J., as chairman sponsored a Creative Writing workshop by Linda Ty-Casper. I immediately signed up for this workshop. There I met Rayvi Sunico, Benilda Santos, Fatima Lim, Rofel Brion and Albert Alejo, S.J. These are the people on campus who not only cared for literature, but also wrote poems themselves.

Mrs. Casper affected no airs – she was generous and kind, quiet and dependable, like the maroon Volkswagen that picked her up from her parents’ house in Malabon and brought her to the Ateneo during the four-day workshop held from 1 to 4 in the afternoon. I was young and painfully 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 which rendered someone, very much like ourselves, indestructible despite death. Or we can ignore literature and banish ourselves from our lives.”

The workshop opened windows in my mind: I knew then I wanted nothing else in the world, except to write. My days began to blaze with some happiness, simply because I could put order into what W.H. Auden has called “the glorious chaos of life.”

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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