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Writing amidst the ruins

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2021 - 12:00am

It was Feb. 25, 1986 and the Marcos family had just fled Malacañang Palace. They wisely avoided the fate of the Ceausescu family in Romania, who were all killed in cold blood by the angry Romanians.

But this was the Philippines, where the people were forgiving, willing to let the dictator and his family go, so that everything could begin again. I was attending a mass at Edsa on that day, and in my knapsack was also an acceptance letter to take a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at an American university, on scholarship. I did not know what to do.

After the mass I walked back to Cubao and in my heart, I knew that I would stay. As they say, I wanted to stay so I could help “rebuild the country.”

Flash forward to three-and-a-half years later, December of 1989. It was my first winter in Scotland, where I was taking my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling on a British Council scholarship. The coup plotters led by Colonel Gringo Honasan were laying siege in Makati. I was listening to a radio report from the British Broadcasting Corporation. The reporter, in his crisp and clear accent, was talking about dear and familiar places, now turned into a war zone.

I called up my sister, who was then in her first year of working as a nurse in the United States, and I steeled myself for a life of exile. The American planes came and strafed the area held by the rebels, who forthwith surrendered. A tenuous peace came upon the land, under the presidency of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, widow of the assassinated former senator, Benigno Jr.

Three months later, I was at a crossroads again. I held in my hand an acceptance letter to take the PhD in English Literature, on a full scholarship, at another American university. That day, the film Dead Poet’s Society was showing, starring the peerless Robin Williams as the poetry teacher. After watching the film, while talking a  walk, I decided to come home.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Philippines, foregoing so many chances to stay overseas because of “duty to country” and “to care for ageing parents.”

After my Fulbright scholarship at Rutgers University in 2001, I was offered a lectureship at the Department of English. I accepted it. I was already teaching Freshman English Composition and Creative Writing: Fiction when the scholarship sponsor in the Philippines asked all of us to return immediately, after 9/11. That included even students like me, who had been offered one year of teaching apprenticeship. People in similar straits before me had opted to stay in the US and just paid for the expenses incurred by the sponsor. But I chose to return.

And return I did in 2001 and only left again for a long time in 2017, when I accepted work as the Head of School and Full Professor of English at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. I accepted it because Malaysia was only 3.5 hours by plane from the Philippines. By then, my parents had died, one month of each other, a terrible time that I survived only because I had erased the details from my mind. There was only my sister with Down Syndrome to care for, and so working in Malaysia seemed like a good compromise.

I spent a month every summer at the home school in the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, to attend meetings and conferences, read in the library and write fiction. I also attended the highly competitive Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury College, Vermont, in August of 2018, where I met America’s best writers. They asked me for a sample of my writing, and I sent them the manuscript of “Riverrun,” my novel. It was a case of one dream fulfilled.

Another dream fulfilled was when Penguin Random House Southeast Asia emailed me one day and offered to buy my novel, “Riverrun.” I just sat there in my office in Malaysia, stunned, as if a bolt of lightning had hit me.

Now, I’m back in the Philippines, teaching part-time at two universities while running an online tutorial school. Online had changed the world of learning and writing in many ways. Now, and because of the pandemic, teaching and learning are done using online platforms. Even if people like me, who are between 50 and death, find it difficult to deal with technology, still we soldier on.

Online has also changed the way not just of learning but also of writing. Now one can do research through Google maps, or internet images – if only our WiFi were better in the Philippines! But on the few good days the WiFi works, the details of one’s novel can be clarified quickly. A photograph can appear, a street can form before your eyes, even a store front or the inner courtyard of an old house. Now, one can also write in one’s country and send the finished manuscript to the publisher overseas, through a click of a mouse.

But I guess one also needs to leave to write one’s book. Here, as one begins to write, the dogs in the neighborhood begin to bark. Or the drivers outside, parking in front of one’s house which is near a hospital, begin playing video games aloud. Or at the crack of dawn, the roosters crow in unison, or one after the other, as if in a concert.

And let’s not even talk about the vagaries of politics, when one’s country is run based not on evidence and facts, but on mere whim and whimsy!

So I guess it’s a balancing act in the end, like many things in life: yin and yang, sour and sweet, gladness and grief. To write a novel here, on stolen moments, or to write it overseas, when time stretches into a horizon without end.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com. Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, is available at shopee.ph and globally at Amazon.

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