Thursday, September 24, 2015

Philippine Literature: The Centenary of N.V.M. Gonzalez

The centenary of the Filipino National Artist for Literature, N.V.M. Gonzalez was celebrated last September 8, 2015. Dr. Adelaida F. Lucero from the University of the Philippines had invited me to write a tribute, which she included with others and which she shared at the university celebration. The following is what I wrote:

Gifts from N.V.M. Gonzalez
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
            N.V.M. Gonzalez was a generous writer and teacher who gave countless gifts to people around him. He may not have realized it, but he also gave me some gifts.
I first met N.V.M. Gonzalez in the mid-1980s in Los Angeles, California. He was in his 70s and had a number of books to his name, including the novel, The Bamboo Dancers, which aside from Rizal’s works was the first Filipino novel I had read. I would later learn of N.V.M.’s numerous publications, awards, and his involvement in the pre-war writers’ group in Manila, the Veronicans, with its remarkable membership. I was impressed to meet N.V.M.
            The literary event was organized by LindaNietes, owner of the bookshop, Philippine Expressions. N.V.M. read from his works, talked, answered questions, and was friendly to the audience. He was very “reachable” to the point that we, younger writers then, felt comfortable enough to call him “N.V.M.” We would even link arms with him for picture-taking, as if we were peers.

            When I met him I had published several short stories and was considering gathering them into a collection. I was also thinking of writing a novel but had no idea how to do this. There were other questions in my head, including: What is Filipino American literature? How different was it from Filipino literature? Who qualified as Filipino American writers? These questions sprung from the diaspora that Filipinos in America experienced. I had noticed that American-born Filipinos disregarded immigrant-Filipinos as not being “real” Filipino Americans. At the same time, immigrant Filipinos were different from Filipinos in the Philippines. The questions confused me.
            While N.V.M. did not directly answer all my questions, how he conducted himself, how he pursued his own literary goals were apparent to me. For instance I could see that he did not agonize over his identity. People called him Filipino, Filipino American, Asian, and Asian American, and these names did not bother him. It seemed to me that he wrote about themes and topics close to his heart and that was all that mattered to him. The certainty to write about what I wanted to and not categorize myself nor my writings was a gift from him.
            He was kind and accommodating to other writers including me. N.V.M. discussed with me not just his writing but mine. I recall a lively exchange that we had about novel-writing. I had said I was having difficulties writing short stories while working on my novel, and he said that could happen, which eased my qualms since I feared I had writer’s block.
At some point I asked him for a blurb for my first short story collection and he quickly sent it in. I also requested stories for anthologies I edited, and he sent the stories. He also gifted me advice about a possible title for one of the anthologies, advice which I took.
            For the longest time he taught at the California State University at Hayward, and he also taught at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. The time came, however, when he started spending more time in the Philippines, and I saw less of him. But I continued to hear of his successes and I was proud of this writer who shared my own diasporic experience in America.
            Perhaps because of the name that he had made for himself in literature, N.V.M. had a quality of permanence, of immortality, as if he would never leave us. But suddenly, in 1999, I received word that he had passed away from kidney complications. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo wrote:

“Dear Cecilia,
I thought you might want to know that NVM was discussing your latest story (the one that appeared in the Graphic) with his wife, Narita, shortly before he passed away during dialysis. Narita told me of it.

I received many other emails that day. It seemed that everyone in the Filipino literary community was upset. We shouldn’t have been surprised, but were, by his passing. I was perturbed, not only by his death but by the strange news linking him to my story, Winning Hearts and Mind. I had not even seen the published version since it came out in the Philippine Graphic and I was in California. I wondered what N.V.M. had said about it.
It took a while before someone clarified that N.V.M. had said something to the effect that war stories should be written this way. His words, perhaps his last, were the greatest gift to me.

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Tags: Philippines, Philippine, literature, writer, author, books, novelist, Filipino, Filipina, National Artist, NVM Gonzalez, Filipino American, Philippine American, centenary

This is all for now,

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