For Tiff and Catherine and Tanya; for Jam and George, Jake and Baby H, Miggy and Arlene; for JMax and Renz and Lendz and Gillian; for Parts and Mo; for Jimmy and Gimmy and Sawi and Krip and Wendell and Neil; for Susan and Grace and DM and Ian—the first of many pieces sure to come. I have nothing but immense gratitude.
I write this now that I am two islands, three provinces, and hundreds of miles away from Dumaguete. It’s been three days since Miggy and I left on that early morning plane. The weather had been balmy—a far cry from the stifling humidity plaguing where I am now—and as I made my way across the ramp to the parked turboprop, the Cuernos de Negros had at last unveiled itself, those olive-green peaks stripped of the cloud cover that had concealed them for the past two weeks. The only clear thought I remember having at that time—for I had admittedly been worn out by the previous night’s game of beer pong (my first time, and our team lost twice!)—was how perfect, how right, that the mountains should finally reveal themselves during my last few precious minutes in the city. I was in the right place at the right time.
I write this now that I have taken the time to sit back and take in the breadth and depth of the past two weeks. Had I tried writing this much earlier, the result would have undoubtedly been a sort of incoherent wreck, for a part of me had wished, right there on that tarmac, that I never had to leave; just the thought of this whole workshop experience wrapping up was enough to get me teary-eyed (and those who know me well enough know I don’t tear up easily, but let’s not dwell on this).
This was, in a manner of speaking, my final shot at getting into the workshop. And I almost didn’t get to submit my application—so thank you, I suppose, to the screening committee for extending the deadline, for giving me ample time to spruce up “In Teresa” and finish the first draft of “Manchester Boys”; for the time to get myself lost in the glass-and-metal heartland of Ortigas on a wet November day in search of the office of Dean Alfar, who had obligingly agreed to write my recommendation. Were I a more fatalistic person, I’d go as far as to proclaim that deadline extension the sign that jumpstarted my way to Dumaguete.
And there I finally was, one late Sunday afternoon: the last fellow to arrive for the 56th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, after two delayed flights and almost four hours in the sweltering marketplace that was Mactan Airport. There I finally was, in the right place at the right time, almost a decade since I first heard of this workshop’s existence.
* * * *
I had planned to blog about the workshop on a day-to-day basis, but this was the only thing I came up with.
“Second night in the Writers Village in Valencia. The signal here is basically next to nothing. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Messenger—which does not bode well for my obsessive-compulsive nature. So this is why the workshop is called a retreat. Evenings here are gorgeously chilly in the way evenings never were back in Iloilo. This morning I awoke to find my glasses all fogged up. I’d been having a weird dream about some malevolent force my cousins and I had to escape from (spoiler: one of them didn’t make it) when this rhythmic knocking slowly drew me back to the mundane. Turned out to be a hen and her chicks outside my window, which reminded me of that rooster that never failed to wake Justin and I up during our time in Bailen last year. Jam and George, my cottage-mates, had declared the previous night their unwillingness to sleep alone, so I have a room to myself. Our cottage is supposed to be the “Tikbalang” cottage, but by now I’m pretty sure I have no third eye. Also, I sleep in complete darkness.”
Mornings in the Writers Village quickly acquired a semblance of routine. George would be the first to wake up, and the flushing and splashing from the bathroom would be my alarm clock. Est. 6-6:30 for five consecutive mornings—a record of sorts for my post-med school self. I’d be bathed and clothed by 7-ish and would head to the common hall for breakfast, where some of the fellows would already be gathered ‘round the table on the terrace. Every now and then, a cacophony of crickets (or were they some sort of bird?) would break the hilltop silence; the mountain breeze would descend upon the village and rustle every leaf, bush and stem to life. Sirius Black and the other dogs would start the day’s loitering. Between the pine trees, we’d spy the urban plains in the distance, and across the bluish blur of the sea, Cebu and Siquijor.
On our last morning, I was awakened by the mooing of the village cow on its way to pasture. On our last evening, we discovered the gems behind the portrait (of a plant? a vase of flowers? I can’t remember now) in the common hall: a pair of huge-ass tokay geckos straight out of my childhood nightmares.
* * * *
Before joining the theater section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I had already been dabbling in poetry, having had a few pieces published abroad (but, ironically, never hereabouts). In a way, I view this workshop as a warm welcome back to literary writing, though I found fiction a more accessible, if not easier, means of return.
Certainly, one of the highlights of the first week was the Dorina-Laviña tag team of Sir J. Neil and Wendell, except one never splashed the other’s face with a glass of something. (I suspect, had we gotten the two of them drunk enough, they would have hurled literary theory and vocabulary words at each other instead.) Sir Jimmy and Sir Gimmy instantly came across as mild-mannered grandfathers you’d want to adopt. Sir Sawi was ever the poet, at times seemingly lost in some landscape only he had access to.
My notes in the manuscripts, in fact, contain mostly quotable quotes that would probably make for flavorful dialogue in a play—from the unwarranted inclusion of certain panelists’ mothers in the conversation to the labeling of an essay’s narrator as ‘spoiled,’ ‘condescending,’ ‘judgmental’ and ‘Messianic.’
The second week’s sessions exuded a different energy. Now, we had the feminist eye of Ma’am Grace and Sir DM’s uwian-na summation of every piece, among others. Now, we had panelists who would jam, mid-session, to “The Age of Aquarius” from “Hair” without batting an eyelash. Now, as well, we were more confident in diving straight into the heart of the piece, and more comfortable in articulating our thoughts without fear of hurting the author.
I’d spent the past four-and-a-half years reviewing other people’s works; now it was my turn to be “reviewed.”
* * * * *
How many times can a band of writers be almost left behind by a ferry in a single day?
9:15 on Saturday morning. While Jake and Kuya Mo—the oracle of Silliman—stayed behind to purchase their tickets for the next ferry, the rest of us languidly made our way to the Dumaguete passenger port terminal. The woman behind the terminal fee counter was moving at the speed of a snail on its way to lunch. If ever there were a competition on who could count bills the slowest, she’d be a sure win.
What we didn’t expect was that we also had to line up for seat numbers at a different counter inside the terminal. We ended up literally running all the way to the ferry.
In a café across the main plaza of Siquijor, Kuya Mo told us about the time Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, then a fellow herself, visited the island with her batchmates and returned to Dumaguete with extra baggage. She had fallen ill—a man in dark clothes was supposedly following her around—and she was told by one of the healers to go to a body of water in order to “release” the spirit. I spent much of the first leg of the jeepney ride just conceptualizing a specfic piece out of that anecdote.
At the oldest convent in Asia, Kuya Mo pretended he couldn’t understand Bisaya and led our party into the building, which was closed for restoration. The second floor was a dusty open space with wooden floors punctuated by wide, unsightly posts.
“Ganito kasi ang kuwento,” Kuya Mo said, referring to the posts.
Then he proceeded to grope his way around the post like a virginal damsel in distress, all the while delivering the day’s most hilarious piece of dialogue: “Father huwag po, Father huwag po.” I stubbed my thumb on one of the walls, by the way, so the blasphemy’s been paid for.
We crossed the street to the church, where a funeral was taking place. Kuya Mo insisted on having a photo shoot involving the confessionals.
Later in the day, after we’d left Salagdoong Beach Resort to catch the 5:15 ferry, only to return in a state of mild panic to retrieve Baby H’s mobile phone, and then head back to the port (on the other side of the island) with only 45 minutes to spare, Kuya Mo was the perfect example of joie de vivre, as Jam called it: on the back of the jeepney, singing at the top of his lungs.
We ran, once again, all the way to the ferry. At the crucial last minute, Jake couldn’t find his ticket, so we had to pay the officer on the spot to issue him a new one. (We later found his ticket inside his bag.)
We arrived in Dumaguete on a drizzly evening, the whole batch complete—and without extra baggage.
* * * * *
Dumaguete reminded me of the Iloilo of my childhood, back when things were still slow and simple. Sunday mornings were spent in the public park by the port, where my brother and I would gaze at the majestic ships tethered to their docks, and watch the smaller motorized pump boats make their way across the Guimaras Strait. Some afternoons were spent at the airport, in a park—it would be hyperbolic to even call it that, for it was no more than a small patch of concrete opened to the public—beside the control tower, where we would wait for the planes to land or take off. Else, we passed the hours on our rooftop; our house was right along the path of the planes, and those stately kings of the skies never failed to leave us wonderstruck as they made their way closer to land.
On our second (and last Tuesday), I decided to take a solitary walk. My inner Catholic voice had been reprimanding me for not having paid a visit to the cathedral since my arrival. I began at the Silliman Church, where the lawn seemingly stretched all the way to the sea, this unobstructed view framed by towering acacias on both sides. Along Hibbard Avenue, tricycles plied their routes beside shiny private vehicles, but even their chaotic crisscrossing exuded the kind of gentleness the city is known for. Ahead of me, a bunch of Caucasian tourists wearing almost nothing stopped every now and then to check out the wares being sold by the stores lining the street.
After the cathedral, I briefly walked around Quezon Park, before deciding to hail a trike back to campus. There was none available, however, so I decided to walk further east. The Boulevard was lit with a faint afternoon glow, the waters calm, the air a tender mixture of salt and smoke. Two kids no older than five made their way across the waters, and for a moment I could almost see their sweet innocence drip off their tiny bodies into the ripples of their trail. The acacias hardly moved; age, after all, eventually strips us of the capacity for wonderment.
* * * * *
I write this now that I have allowed my emotions to settle. But every now and then, the thought of Dumaguete, of the Silliman Writers Workshop, bursts into my consciousness, and so I do nothing else but remember.
I remember my roommates, the boys of 314: George, both genius and gentleness, the Christine to my Phantom, a fount of endless jokes ranging from downright unexpectedly funny to downright pun-ny; and Jam, rock star, who always took the quickest baths, whose poems glimmered with measured musicality and demanded to be spoken. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have shared my first time living in a dorm with these men.
I remember the boys of the other room: Jake, whose geekiness could match my own, whose expansive knowledge of space and spacecraft could fill a conversation alongside my love for the Boeing 787 and the A350; Baby H, whose writing reminded me of my own when I was his age, who was the first to dare break our batch’s goody-two-shoes image one Sunday night in Hayahay, who assumed the role of icon of devotion during the impromptu procession up four flights of stairs in Vernon Hall; and Miggy, one of the coolest dads I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, period.
I remember Tanya’s elegant silences, how it all translated into this workshop’s most elegant writing; Tiff’s self-professed love for bread, and all those moments spent talking about the theater, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, Repertory Philippines and Tanghalang Ateneo; Catherine’s self-professed dipsomania. I remember Tiff and Catherine and our AA meetings at Ciao Bella and Hayahay and Allegre. I remember Arlene, “oh yes, absolutely,” and wonder how she must be doing right now, an ocean and thousands of miles away.
I remember Parts and her serenity of speech; JMax, her unparalleled coolness, and our covenant to fill the world with our spawn, and the moments spent trying to outgross the other (she always won!); Lendz and how what I initially perceived to be shyness turned out to be something entirely opposite; Renz and his peerless fabulousness.
I remember those games of Resistance, where we tried to out-Oscars each other while doing our best not to replicate that time I oversold my innocence. I remember that final night in the Village, how the aftertaste of tubà resembled fresh oysters.
I remember Monday night watching Nana perform, her distinctly breathy sound something I could listen to over and over again; Melody Enero and her soaring, altogether lovely rendition of “La Vie en Rose” and “Falling in Love with Love” during our closing ceremonies.
I remember the Acacia Picnic, how George and Ian turned into a tree, how we all passed the afternoon on mats on the grass, listening to music and poetry, while the sea ebbed and flowed behind us, the sun neither too warm nor absent.
I remember all of these people, with whom I could watch “Alien: Covenant” on a Sunday afternoon and emerge from the cinema ready to launch into a discussion of its merits; with whom I could talk about Steve McQueen’s “Shame” at length; with whom I could fanboy over Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton; with whom I could debate, late at night, whether “Arrival” or “Interstellar” is the better film (the answer is “Arrival”).
And in my head, I hear Sir Sawi’s voice chiding me from the dreamscape, “Now you’re just making a list!”
But what was the workshop, after all, if not an idyll, a place where time and the life beyond stopped; where nothing else mattered but the literary work at hand and the literary work demanding to be put into page; where I could take stock of the passing of the minutes and of people, could make a list of the fortune, both tangible and intangible, that had landed on my lap, and say to myself, yes, I am happy—here, as I was before I came here.
I remember these two beautiful weeks in Dumaguete and can only consider myself the rarest form of lucky for deciding, all those months ago, to give this workshop one last try. I came to Dumaguete with three pieces of fiction, and left with a thousand more stories to write, most of them made with the most gracious people, all of them memory of the purest, most priceless form.
* * * * *
P.S. I don't think this piece is very coherent, but I do hope it contains saysáy, soul, and datìng. [Exit with Sir Gimmy’s signature, smiling “Aha!” pose with pointed thumbs and index fingers. Mic drop.]
P.P.S. “I have now become Wendellian and very anecdotal.” –JNG
P.P.P.S. “You horrid crook! Let me speak!” –GA
P.P.P.P.S. "I love germane!" –Anonymous
P.P.P.P.S. "I love germane!" –Anonymous
Plus 10 more photos:
Pre-morning session at Writers Village.
Krip Yuson cutting up a pig alongside other literary luminaries.
Chin-Chin, Tiff and Tanya at Lab-as.
On the jeepney in Siquijor.
Hezron at Scooby's.
Chin-Chin and her idol somewhere in Looc.
At the Beyonce room in Top Hits.
Tiff at Cana's Retreat in Amlan.
Lendz, JMax, Jake and Renz on the final night.