From Nagrebcan to never-never land

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Anvil Publishing has just issued The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader, as part of its Classics series to bring the best and the brightest in Philippine writing into the hands of the contemporary reader.

The book collects 24 stories and an essay in a new and expanded edition that shows Arguilla’s development as a writer. Manuel Arguilla (1911-1944) was an Ilocano who wrote beautiful and lyrical stories in English. He was best known for his short story, “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife,” the title story in the collection that received the first prize in the Commonwealth Literary Contest in 1940.

Most of his stories show life in his hometown of Barrio Nagrebcan in Bauang, La Union. He earned an A.B. in Education in 1933 from the University of the Philippines. He was a president of the UP Writers’ Club and editor of the Literary Apprentice as well. He married Lydia Villanueva, another talented writer, and they lived in Ermita, Manila.

Arguilla taught creative writing at the University of Manila and worked at the Bureau of Public Welfare as managing editor of the Welfare Advocate until 1943. Afterward, he was elected to the Board of Censors. He secretly set up a guerrilla intelligence unit against the Japanese during World War II. In August 1944, near the end of that devastating war, Manuel Arguilla was captured and executed by the Japanese.

Thus, one of the best young writers of the Philippines died at the height of his writing career. Critics then and now ask what he could have written if survived that war. He was writing a novel in the middle of the Second World War, his words like points of light in those darkest days.

Butch Dalisay writes a fine introduction to this volume and he wonders: “As with many seemingly simple things, approaching and appraising Arguilla is rather more complex. There’s a huge difference in theme and sensibility between ‘Midsummer’ and ‘Caps and Lower Case,’ which might as well have been written by two different people. How the dreamy romanticism of ‘Midsummer’ could coexist with the gloomy realism of ‘Caps and Lower Case’ might seem a mystery, but those of us who’ve written and read enough will know that, well, it happens, and perhaps it should. You see this spread and stretch in Francisco Arcellana, for example, in NVM Gonzalez, in F. Sionil Jose, even in Nick Joaquin.”

I first read the original edition of Arguilla’s stories as an undergraduate student at the Ateneo. I remember still the hardbound edition with its white and thick book paper, reading and turning the pages as I read the stories about country life and tension in the city, and finally the flaming stories about socialism and revolt. I think Arguilla was influenced by Salvador P. Lopez’s dictum about proletarian literature, who in turn was influenced by the then regnant school in American fiction led by John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell.

The new Anvil edition includes uncollected stories tracked down from the archives. One of them is an early story about bullying, “Grit,” with its Americanisms, and “Misa de Gallo,” with its descriptions worthy of Guy de Maupassant: “The moon traveled through the trees, slipping from twig to twig with incredible ease, over big branches, across thick leaves, as fast as we went.”

“Seven Bedtime Stories” is a rendering of Filipino supernatural tales involving the aswang, the manananggal, the tianak, and the tikbalang. “Rendezvous at Banzai Bridge” was published in the Philippine Review. The narrator befriends a Japanese soldier, who seems to love the Philippines as well: “But I like the Philippines much. With the Philippines, I already feel like brothers…. Inside here, deep inside, inside – I feel like that.”

This story was published in April 1943 – and a year later, Arguilla was dead in the hands of the Japanese.

*      *      *

The second book I will review is Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. The book won the John Newberry Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. She is also the author of Blackbird Fly, an Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature Honor Book; The Land of Forgotten Girls, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature; and the acclaimed You Go First. Her mother is Visayan and lives in Cebu City. Erin Entrada Kelly was raised in Louisiana, but now lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I found this book at National Book Store when I was home last September, one of the few books of fiction still being sold there. I wonder when will the next container van of new books arrive at the Total Bookstore?

Kelly writes an inventive and playful story involving four young people – Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet. There are three kid heroes and one villain in this charming novel, all of them looking for their place in the universe.

Kelly’s strong suits are her deft characterization. Virgil is a shy boy always prodded by his parents to come out of his shell. But how can he do that when they call him “Turtle” every day? On the other hand, his Filipina grandmother is sharp and memorable. When her daughter buys many mangoes on sale, she said: “And what do we need ten mangoes for? They’re not even from the Philippines. They’re from Venezuela. Your mother bought ten Venezuelan mangoes, and for what? That woman would buy kisses from Judas if they were on sale.”

Valencia is a deaf, bright girl living in her own cocoon, while Kaori Tanaka is a second-generation Japanese American with an uncanny gift. “How else could she explain her powers of second sight, which could only come from someplace magical?” Chet is the bully who hides his inferiority beneath a bluster of superiority. His father, Mr. Bullens, wants him to be the star basketball player that he could never be.

Everything comes to a head in the forest, which in literature is the Never-Never Land where revelations happen. Hello, Universe is a warm and big-hearted novel, written with clarity and depth. It deserves an auditorium of awards as well as the affection of many readers.

Comments can be sent to [email protected]


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