“. . . but my mind was distracted by something else. By the vastness of the Pacific, for one; and, for another, by the thought that every wave that broke upon the shores of California had its twin that swept down the length of some shore on Leyte or Luzon. What feat it would be to put this idea across in stone or marble, I thought. We had become a rare generation; we had made of the Pacific a small pond.”
(The Bamboo Dancers, 1961)
And yet, the legacy continues, both in the Philippines and in the U.S. Shortly, after N.V.M. passed away, his family and his writer friends in the Philippines launched the N.V.M. Gonzalez Short Story Awards. N.V.M. and his colleagues had lamented the decline of publication avenues for short story writers. The Awards were intended to encourage the younger generation of writers—by then, the students of N.V.M.’s students –to sustain the art and craft of the short story. Jimmy Abad, Neal Cruz, Greg Brilliantes, former students of N.V.M., now proven and well established writers themselves, served as judges. They, and now their students, carry on the tradition of the short story as imagined by N.V.M.
The Awards lasted for five years. The judges were alarmed that submissions have thinned out even though the prize money was relatively generous for its day—50,000 pesos (approximately $1,000 U.S. dollars). It seemed that fiction writing was declining and kept alive largely by the Palanca Award, the longest running literary award in the Philippines. In an interesting inverse development, trade magazines, even glossy issues, started to emerge, patronized by the new money generated by Overseas Workers and the call center economy. In less than half a decade, during my last visit to Manila in 2010, there seemed to be an explosion of publications, reportage and fiction writing. Bookstore stalwarts like Bookmark and Popular Bookstore were given the run for their money by more upscale, modish stores in the new condominium communities of Fort Bonifacio, Greenhills, and Pasig. More importantly, the publications were not solely in English but also in Tagalog and in other dialects. N.V.M. would have been pleased. New experiences have also emerged, fueled by the Diaspora and migration of literary-minded Filipinos seeking work in the Middle East and Europe. When the Filipino writers adapted English as their literary vehicle, they were the harbingers of the Diaspora, using the English language and transforming it through the sheer physicality of migration.and imagination. Border crossings and re-crossings ever since the early pensionados touched ground in the U.S. have thus influenced the meaning-making of Filipino writers.
It is the mastery of this imagination that allows the Filipino writer to transport his /her characters in lands that are at once familiar and strange. Intuitively, N.V.M. knew this. What his American critics call “local color” is linguistic sleight of hand; as N.V.M. would say, he thinks in Tagalog but writes in English. To read his work as “local color” is to miss the story altogether. Somewhere in this issue is a photograph of one of his notebooks. They contain story ideas that begin as a Tagalog paragraph and is continued in English. When N.V.M. says, enigmatically to some, that he never left (the Philippines), he was referring to the geography of the mind, a mind that constructs a story in a way that the reader can locate his/her place in the writer’s imagination. Whether it is in Romblon or San Francisco, the story transports the reader to where the imagination is comfortable.
When the home where N.V.M. imagined his fictive wanderings burned down, the physicality of the loss was devastating, turning to ash the years of work, gathered mementoes, signed first edition books and other countless and priceless rarities. No one wants to lose one’s possessions in a fire. Yet a more meaningful explanation is that, perhaps, N.V.M. was signaling that it’s not the hard copy, the physicality of print that matters in the end, but the spirit of fiction — that persuasive storytelling drawn from the depths of imagination renders the writer’s work immortal, and, from the ashes, kaingin-like, new stories emerge.
© Michael Gonzalez