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Alumni of Iowa’s famous international writers program hold Manila reunion

lifestyle / Arts and Books
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Alumni of Iowa’s famous international writers program hold Manila reunion

IWP director Christopher Merrill (fifth from left) with IWP 2016 fellows: Eros Atalia (Philippines); Ko Hua Chen (Taiwan); Christine Yohannes (Ethiopia); Tse Hao Guang (Singapore); Vladimir Poleganov (Bulgaria); Lee Chae Won (South Korea); Yusi Avianto Pareanom (Indonesia); and Tomoka Shibasaki (Japan).—PHOTO COURTESY OF EROSATALIA

IWP director Christopher Merrill (fifth from left) with IWP 2016 fellows: Eros Atalia (Philippines); Ko Hua Chen (Taiwan); Christine Yohannes (Ethiopia); Tse Hao Guang (Singapore); Vladimir Poleganov (Bulgaria); Lee Chae Won (South Korea); Yusi Avianto Pareanom (Indonesia); and Tomoka Shibasaki (Japan).—PHOTO COURTESY OF EROSATALIA

To this day, American literature remains a huge part of the Philippine education system. The Silliman University National Writers Workshop—the most prestigious and oldest of its kind in Asia—was patterned after the Iowa Writers Workshop by Edith and Edilberto Tiempo.

With this looming influence, are our identity as Filipino writers lost?

This was the question National Artist F. Sionil José posed to the audience during the 2017 International Conference on Education, Literatures, and Creative Writing at University of Santo Tomas (UST) last April 20-22.
The three-day event hosted American writer Christopher Merril, director of the International Writing Program (IWP) of University of Iowa, and the IWP alumni, both foreign and Filipino writers.

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“I have said many times that colonialism is not dead. It lives on in the attitudes embedded in the colonized, their sense of inferiority,” José said. “It has also mutated—the new colonizers are not necessarily the farangs, the foreigners, anymore. Our oppressors are now our own elite.”

José called on Filipino writers to celebrate “our country, our Filipinoness.”

“First and foremost, be honest with yourselves,” he said. “Write not only for yourself but for our people. Be true to them as you will be true to yourself. Be contextual. Be involved and politically aware of our people’s problems. Be engaged, and be able to identify our enemies. Look closely at what you are doing—you maybe one of them without knowing it.”

Sense of language

Poet and educator Marjorie Evasco, talking about creative-writing workshops in the country, said they vetted fellows based on their “sense of language and sense of story, which is very basic.”

She said a creative-writing workshop spent about P50,000 per fellow, a huge amount considering such workshops were not money-making units. But with this come the expectation from the writers.

“Fellows are expected to produce and contribute to the body of Philippine literature,” she said. “And so we say, Practice gratitude. And the gratitude and generosity of the writing is always in keeping the writer alive.”

Charlson Ong, echoed what most writers felt about writing workshop.
“The workshop was, and still is, a scary place for the budding writer,” he said. “[Writing] workshops and [literary] contests remain a fact of literary life. Ignore them if you will. Indulge them if you care to. It may help you in the long journey of a writer’s life. But it certainly is not the end-all and be-all.”

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Golden year

This year, IWP will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, since it was established in 1967. Its long line of writers include Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) and Mo Yan (China).

The IWP is funded largely by the US State Department. Every winter, the US Secretary of State sends out letters to embassies and consuls all over the world, inviting them to nominate writers to be part of the program.

Fictionist and IWP “reunion” organizer Eros Atalia —DEEJAE DUMLAO

Fictionist and IWP “reunion” organizer Eros Atalia —DEEJAE DUMLAO

“We gather writers all around the world for a three-months-long residency,” Merril said. “The writers write. They give readings and panel discussions. We also run a translation workshop. More than anything, we hope that the writers engage in a wide amount of the conversation, and broaden their own language.”

Last year, fictionist Eros Atalia, a UST faculty member, was accepted as one of the fellows to IWP. This year, he invited his cofellows to join him for the conference here.

During his talk, Atalia, whose novel “Tatlong Gabi, Tatlong Araw” won the Grand Prize in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2013, said literature was a middle-class concern in the Philippines.
He said the education department asked him to help update the contents of Malikhaing Pagsulat (Creative Writing) courses for K-12.

Difficulties

The 2016 IWP alumni from different countries shared with the audience their experiences in getting their works out in their respective homelands.

Poet Christine Yohannes talked about the difficulties of getting one’s book published through established or university presses in Ethiopia. She self-published her book of poems.
Prolific Japanese novelist Tomoka Shibasaki said she was able to publish 30 books in 15 years—a rate of two books per year!

Taiwanese writer Ko Hua Chen, an opthalmologist by trade (and a crooner at karaoke bars at night), writes poetry about LGBT.

Other visiting writers were Vladimir Poleganov (Bulgaria); Tse Hao Guang (Singapore); Zhou Jianing (China); Yusi Avianto Pareanom (Indonesia); Lee Chae Won (South Korea); Alice Yousef (Palestinian Territories); and Ukamaka Olisakwe (Nigeria).
Also part of the conference were IWP Philippine alumni Susan S. Lara, Ian Rosales Casocot, Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, Sarge Lacuesta, Reuel Aguila and Mark Angeles.

The reunion of IWP alumni was organized by Atalia as part of the 2017 International Conference on Education, Literatures, and Creative Writing of the UST College of Education.

The conference and reunion were supported by the UST The Varsitarian. —CONTRIBUTED

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