Finding time

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Two weeks ago, I was invited by Dr. Bayani Santos to talk to his graduate students in Education at the Holy Angels University in Angeles City, Pampanga. I always try to find time to talk to students, especially those who are training to be teachers. One way to make sure that your lessons go down well is to teach those who will later become teachers themselves.

Dr. Santos, with whom I worked when I was the dean of the College of Journalism and interim president at The Manila Times College, introduced me as a literary dynamo “who only rests when he breathes.” That made me smile, for I recalled the sticker in the jeepneys that I used to take when I was younger, the one that said the jeepney driver’s rest only comes when he pees (“Jingle lang ang pahinga”).

I seemed to have done a lot of writing in the last two years. It was mainly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced me to stay at home because of the lockdowns. I lived and worked in Malaysia until August 2020, and from March 2020 I stayed at home in Kuala Lumpur because of the pandemic. I taught Popular Literature in the 18th and 19th centuries and headed the School of English online at the University of Nottingham. I also revised my K-12 textbook, “Critical Reading and Writing,” commissioned by Anvil Publishing.

When I returned to the Philippines, the lockdowns were more severe. I only stepped out of the house to buy my medicines and provisions. I taught online at San Beda University and Far Eastern University, and again I wrote a lot. I finished a new book of poems called “The Country of Memory” and did two rounds of proofreading for “Radiance and Sunrise,” my English translation of “Banaag at Sikat,” the monumental Tagalog novel published in 1906 by Lope K. Santos, who is also the grandfather of Dr. Bayani Santos.

People were dying like flies and my Facebook wall darkened with posts about friends dying or dead. My own nephew, JC, who was only 24 and an incoming Law freshman, also passed away. I lived alone in a three-story townhouse while my sister who has Downs’ syndrome lived in our other house in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, with her caregiver. I cooked my own food and cleaned the house and then I wrote, again and again.

I told the students that I write because it is the only thing I can do. I do not drive and I do not know how to swim, even if I had taken two rounds of classes in driving and swimming. I also said it must be my upbringing. My father was a military officer at Basa Air Base, Pampanga, who went to the College of Law as a working student. He worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., went home to change from his military uniform to his civilian clothes, then commuted to Guagua, Pampanga, to finish his Law degree at the Guagua National Colleges. On the other hand, my mother taught Music in school from Monday to Friday, and then gave private Music lessons every Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. All of us rested only on Sundays, which I spent reading, since if you read at home you were exempted from doing household chores.

A student then asked me if social media and Netflix distract me? I said I go to social media to keep in touch with friends, since the pandemic has cut off all personal meetings. I also watch YouTube and Netflix, but mainly to do research for my book or my communications consultancy. I just finished watching “Betty en New York,” a Latin American telenovela streaming in Netflix, because I am writing my second novel which is set in New York. I found similarities between Betty’s rags-to-riches story and my novel’s trajectory of a graduate student who had to decide whether to come home to the Philippines or stay in the States after his post-graduate studies in New York.

I am now watching “Word of Honor,” a gay-oriented Chinese film notable for its rich cinematography and balletic fight sequences. I also finished a whole trove of Boys’ Love shows from Thailand and the Philippines in YouTube, which I watched as part of my research for my second novel. I was looking at the development of the plot lines, the twists and turns in the narrative, and the brisk pacing that I can also use in writing my second novel.

Another student said that his friends were talking about me and the column that I wrote for The Philippine STAR a few months ago, called “A Night Out With the Boys.” His friends were discussing my column on Twitter. I was glad to hear this, since this is not the first time I have heard of readers discussing my columns and my books on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They even posted photographs of the book cover of “Riverrun, A Novel,” taken when the readers were in London, or  Malaysia, or Singapore, or in various spots in the Philippines.

I said that “A Night Out with the Boys” began as a column, but I have rewritten it and transformed it into a short story. It now forms part of my new book, “The Heart of Summer: Selected Stories and Tales,” composed of work written from 1981-2021. Half of them were stories I had written and revised continuously in the last 40 years, while the other half were new stories. Like Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo who revised continuously the stories included in his book, “A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories,” I looked at the stories every few years to see what I could change – a stream of dialogue, a passage of exposition, a sketch of character. I also deepened the characters’ motivation and, like a painter, tried to do background and foreground descriptions to add verisimilitude to the stories.

My heart is singing because Penguin Books has just accepted my stories for publication this December. So the mantra, I finally told the students, is work hard and you will get your just desserts.

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Comments: [email protected] Danton Remoto’s books have been published by Penguin Books, www.penguin.sg.

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