UNFINISHED BUSINESS | 8 books I left unread in 2013 for reasons lame and otherwise

My Granta magazines, arguably the largest such collection in the Philippines.

#SHELFIE. My Granta magazines, arguably the largest such collection in the Philippines. But literate frenemies have disputed my claim, which I’m unwilling to give up.

It’s the start of 2014.
It’s time for some people—myself included—to look back and take stock of the books they read the past year.
Except that that’s so last year.
For 2014, I’m doing something different.
Continue reading

Five reasons why I am addicted to Granta

The very first Granta I ever owned and read (Tinzeen.com)

(WARNING: This piece is roughly 1,800 words long and reading it may interrupt your Facebook status updates. It is recommended that you read this at the office while pretending to work since doing so at home may reduce time for casual surfing.)

Granta doesn’t call itself the Magazine of New Writing for nothing.
Through the years, it has published many young writers, introducing the world to the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, among others, through its Best of Young British Novelists issue, released every decade since 1983.
However, a few volumes have been underwhelming. Or at least to me they were.
Take Granta 45 which carried the theme Gazza Agonistes.
Half of it is devoted to football player Paul Gascoigne, which I’m sure would be a hit among fans but not to this reader, who knows next to nothing about sports. I tried to read it twice — promise! — but I was unable to finish it. (Sorry, Ian Hamilton) [See: Paul Gascoigne]
Another such issue is Granta 106: New Fiction Special.
More than half of the stories in the issue failed to impress me, a person who reads for entertainment more than anything else.
But then again, that’s another story.
Nine times out of ten — probably even more — the contributors, editors, artists, and staff at Granta produce a volume of writing so refreshing that readers are prompted to store and collect them as “books,” not as magazines, which are likely to be disposed of as soon as the new issue arrives.
This explains why I have more than 40 volumes of Granta “magazines” on my shelf, which have been bought from Booksale, a used bookstore in Paris, and
through a subscription in the US.
The collection includes volumes published as books, such as The Granta Book of Reportage, the Granta Book of the Family, and Joan Didion’s Miami.
To this day, I have yet to personally meet someone who has a larger Granta collection than I do.
And so, as an indulgent tribute to my collection, I have come up with five reasons why I remain grateful to and for Granta Magazine.

1) Granta publishes good writing. Period.

A chunk of readers still distinguishes fiction and journalism, as if one was a diametric opposite of the other. Granta makes no such distinction, offering to publish good writing. To this end, it has published pieces of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who also wrote a non-fiction book, News of a Kidnapping) and Salman Rushdie, Ryszard Kapucinski, who went to Ethiopia in 1974 after the downfall of Haile Selassie, and James Fenton, who covered the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. (Another Granta contributor, James Hamilton Paterson, who shuttles between Italy and the Philippines, has written a Granta-published book about the Marcos family entitled America’s Boy). [See: America’s Boy]

The special Granta issue featuring james Fenton's coverage of the EDSA I revolution

In his introduction to the Granta Book of Reportage, Ian Jack refers to the so-called demarcation between literature and journalism:

“Are they to be described as ‘writing’ in the sense of literature, or as ‘journalism’? I have never quite known where one begins and the other ends and…the question is neither interesting nor meaningful — literature not being an ‘objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong’ but more or less what ‘culture-controlling groups’ decide it is.”

2) Granta offers both history and geography lessons.

The magazine is decidely British but its outlook is global.
Its latest issue is about Pakistan, which was recently reviewed by the New York Times. [See: Blown Away by Pakistan: A guide to scoring beer and avoiding suicide bombers in the Land of the Pure]
The Magazine’s Pakistan-themed Autumn 2010 issue is “a good place to start…if cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing anomosities and encouraging amity,” its reviewer Isaac Chotiner says. [See: New York Times Review of Granta’s Pakistan issue]
Based on its previous issues, the magazine will continue to cover other countries below the radar of privately-owned international news companies.
In its Travel issue (Granta 26), Jeremy Harding wrote about the Polisario (Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia El Hamra y Rio de Oro), a movement that sought to liberate two Western Saharan provinces — Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro — from Spanish colonization.
But in 1975, when Western Sahara was decolonized — coinciding with the end of Francisco Franco’s term — Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory.
Polisario’s guerillas were later able to debilitate Mauritania, prompting the country to give up its claim, Harding writes in the issue.
But not so with Morocco.
With US support, Morocco was able to build a wall — known as the Berm of the Western Sahara — that not only protected its territory but encroached on the claim of Polisario and its independent state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. [See: Western Sahara Wall]
In his piece entitled Polisario, Harding continues to say that:

“[t]he great success of the wall, it struck me, was to assert its presence to such an extent that you seldom felt unseen or unaccounted for. It had imposed its own order on the desert by turning vast, homogeneous tracts of rubble into an arcane grid of concourses and pathways, some brightly lit and therefore dangerous, the others dark and apparently safe.”

3) Granta rarely repeats its themes.

And when it does, it’s an improvement over the original.
Take its Travel issue, which came out in Spring 1989, with four contributions from travel writer Bruce Chatwin. (If you haven’t read him, he’s the guy that Moleskine uses to advertise its notebooks. Chatwin loved them so much that when its store was about to be shuttered, he bought nearly all their supplies. Or so Moleskine claims.)
The Travel issue was so successful it was repeated nearly two decades later with Granta 94: On the Road Again: Where Travel Writing Went Next, released in Summer 2006.
I preferred the sequel because the original had one Chatwin piece too many and the former featured one of the best short stories I have ever read in Granta entitled How to Fly, by John Burnside, which begins thus:

“I flew for the first time when I was nine years old. Nobody saw it happen, but that didn’t bother me: the Wright Brothers’ earliest ascent had also been conducted in the strictest secrecy and, until public pressure forced them out of hiding, any number of successful flights had gone unwitnessed. Of course, Orville and Wilbur hadn’t attempted to do what I was doing: like Bleriot and Santos-Dumont, they were changing the known world, but they weren’t committed to flying in the purest sense. They were mechanics, not angels; and what I wanted was something that they had never even considered and, though I knew I was destined to fail, I wasn’t prepared to settle for anything as mundane as a flying machine.”

And speaking of Granta themes, I have a couple of favorites, including but not limited to Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater and Murder.

The former wasn’t actually a theme — it was a mishmash of stories and pieces, including one about the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi, who was an apprentice of Max Vargas, the father of Alberto Vargas, who would become famous for stylized drawings of pin-up girls, also known as Varga girls. [See: Alberto Vargas]

Alberto Vargas' pin-up girls were the Anime of the 1950s. (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com)

Meanwhile, the second theme featured the Murderee, a novella by Martin Amis that later became the novel London Fields. In 1989, it was delisted from the Booker Prize because judges disliked the way women were portrayed.
I have yet to get myself a copy of the novel because the story’s structure and the language is highly original, as indicated in its first few chapters published by Granta:

“Nicola knew two strange things. The second strange thing was that she must never tell anyone about the first strange thing. The first strange thing was this: she always knew what was going to happen next.”

“…the shrieking gossip of the yard — with a cluck-cluck here and a whoof-whoof there, here a cheep, there a moo, everywhere an oink-oink.”

4) Granta helps with playing Trivial Pursuit.

Yes, it’s true.
Some four years ago, when friends regularly played the 20th edition of Trivial Pursuit during weekends, I was asked to identify a South American country whose leader was named Stroessner. (I forgot how the question was phrased exactly and I’ve searched far and wide on Google for it to no avail.)
I was able to answer the question immediately, to my rivals’ disbelief.
“Paraguay,” I said.
“How could you know that?” I remember the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Alcuin Papa asking me, right palm on his forehead.
“Simple,” I told him and his teammates who couldn’t believe their bad luck. “I just finished reading Granta, which did a feature on Paraguay.”
Granta 31, published in Spring 1990, was entitled The General, referring to Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator of Paraguay, who ruled for 35 years from 1954 to 1989. [See: Alfredo Stroessner]
In an 82-page piece written by Isabel Hilton, she says:

“When he fell, thirty-five years later, he held a number of records. He was the longest-serving dictator in the western hemisphere and the second-longest in the world.: only Kim Il-Sung outlasted him. The world had lived through thirty-five years of history, but three-quarters of the population of Paraguay had known no other leader, and there was not an institution or political party in the country that had not been shaped by his presence…Television began and ended with his heavy features and a march named after him. There was a Stroessner Polka, for more light-hearted occasions. The airport was named after him. The free-port on the Brazilian frontier was called Puerto Stroessner. There were Stroessner statues, avenues, and roads, and official portraits of him hung in every office and school.” [See: Isabel Hilton]

5) Granta has yet to gain a following among Filipinos.

Many Filipinos hooked on Western publications read New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire, and the usual glossies (i.e., Time, Fortune).
Once, more than fifteen years ago, I walked into an upscale magazine store in Makati and asked for the latest copy of Harper’s Magazine.
“We have Harper’s Bazaar,” the salesperson said, dismissive. “And sir, there’s no such thing as Harper’s Magazine.”
I let it go, despite the fact that I knew all along about the magazine that Lewis Lapham edited and that years before, my grandparents bought me a year’s subscription of the magazine, which, surprisingly, was delivered to my doorstep a month ahead of the issue’s date.
Ignorance is bliss and I wasn’t about to get in the way of her Nirvana.
So what’s my point?
Some people — even those who read New Yorker — may not know about Granta.
As far as I know, it’s not even available in Solidaridad Bookstore, owned by writer F. Sionil Jose, which is frequented by the likes of Supreme Court Justice Adolf Azcuna. [See: F. Sionil Jose, Adolf Azcuna]
Which is a good thing.
It means less demand for Granta in the Philippines, and more chances for me to buy it, whether on Booksale or Fully-Booked.
Granta may not like that but hey, that’s the way it is.

Three good reasons for reading Kerima Polotan’s The True and the Plain

Move over, Charice Pempengco.
Kerima Polotan is here — she’s been here for more than the past half-century actually — and it’s about time an intelligent, sophisticated, accomplished, and articulate Filipina gets some credit, airtime, and probably even some online publicity via this website (however few the page views and visitors).
Sure, Ms. Polotan is already a senior citizen and may not have a botoxed jaw or the promise of worldwide fame.
Except that I don’t care about Charice and I haven’t seen Glee and that may be a major major oversight for someone who carries a Philippine passport.
So pardon me kids, but I’m placing all my bets on Ms. Polotan.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that she’s currently in hermit mode, refusing friends to visit her.
But that’s a choice — and a fundamental right — no one can deprive her of.
In the same way that no right-thinking, literate Filipino should ever deprive himself/herself by choosing to ignore her work.
So if you have the chance to read any two books this year, you better grab Ms. Polotan’s Author’s Choice and the True and the Plain from the University of the Philippines Press.
Sure, she wrote a hagiography of Imelda Marcos and may have been part of the delegation when the Marcos family left in 1986.
Does that mean her essays are worthless?
Absolutely not.
Reading Kerima Polotan will make you proud of being a Filipino more than Venus Raj or Charice Pempengco ever will.
But I talk too much.
And so now, here are my three good reasons why you should read Polotan’s The True and The Plain: A Collection of Personal Essays, which were previously published in Focus Philippines Magazine from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. (Also: thanks to Red Constantino for introducing me to one of my favorite writers of all time.)

1) It will transport you to a Manila that we have never known about — and perhaps never will.

Taken in February 1986 at the Luneta (express000/Flickr.com)

Do you know what a Matorco is?
I do.
But that’s because I read the book and came across the term in her essay entitled “My Misbegotten Christmas.”
Thanks to Google and Flickr, I discovered that a Matorco is a double-decker bus that used to ply Roxas Boulevard.
Polotan wrote that she rode it one December night with her children and husband, Johnny Tuvera, who was an aide of Ferdinand Marcos.
And that bus — and the ride that could have provided special thrills to cynical urban dwellers such as myself — is long gone.
Same goes for the many panciterias and restaurants that have disappeared from the city, eating the dust left over by monolithic fastfood chains, local and otherwise.
Who recalls having lunch at Wa Nam, Moderna, and New England?
How about Texas Cafe in Malate, which catered to colegialas? Or the Waldorf Astoria also in the same area?
No one remembers anymore. (I was just an infant during that time. Yes, seriously.)
It’s about time someone did.
And reading about these establishments through Polotan’s pieces is just one of the many ways by which we can celebrate — and perhaps even express regret over — the little lost treasures of our country’s capital.
Below is her take on Luneta, from The Happy Hoi Polloi:

“In the Luneta, all colors blend ‚ the brown and the white and yellow of people; the green and blue and red of shrubs. Towards the sea, the great sward stretches, and the globes of light hang like huge pearls, are caught in the waters of the lake. People flow by, stop and eddy, break and whirl again. Across the pond, a band plays; a balloon breaks loose from some child’s grasp and floats towards an early star. Here, the land lies flat and green, broken only by stone; there, it rises in a series of small hills that hide the curving tips of a pagoda. The doves come, cooing and beating their wings around a man, dressed in a tiger’s suit, and giving away candy. The lovers try not to be conspicuous. A family spreads the contents of a bag — kropeck, juice, biscuits. One mother lies on a mat, unashamedly nursing her baby. On other mats, men and their wives, kicking their heels at the sky. The park guards  watch when they can but soon grow weary and give up. The sky is like a canvas washed clean, gray along the edges, and you think, looking over the heads around you, how distant the heat of living is — tonight’s dishes, tomorrow’s bundy clock. Joy is a fitful moment, but better that than nothing.”

2) It will make you appreciate literature — especially Philippine literature — better.

Abraham “Abe” Cerojano, my former editor-in-chief at GMANews.TV, happened to work under Polotan as a proofreader of the Evening Post, a newspaper she edited and which I remember reading as a kid whenever I visited my mother’s office in one of Escolta’s side streets.
Polotan was a very good writer, said my boss, who is himself famous for writing the news story about the failed assassination attempt against the late vice-president Emmanuel Pelaez, whom he quoted. [See: What is happening to our country, General?]
I don’t doubt my boss one bit.
Reading Polotan allows you to encounter certain gracious turns of phrase that current writers — Filipino and foreign — can only envy.
These phrases include “a carpet of dead leaves,” which she encountered after the vehicle she was on had a flat tire while en route to General Santos City from Davao.
She also writes about “the airy language of fashion [crowding] out the spare idiom of human tragedy,” referring to how the New York Times juxtaposed a story about a fashion show and a rape inside a subway car.
Polotan also mentions “the courage and the strength that can love the imperfect and the maimed,” recounting a visit to the doctor.
And, last but not least, talking about her son’s circumcision, she writes:

“[H]e would be in an elder sister’s skirt, lifting his dark and laughing eyes to me, torn between chagrin and pride, hesitating ever so briefly when I asked to look at the object of his ordeal. He would pull that…skirt open and I would see his possession cradled tenderly in a sling.”

3) Polotan is anachronistic but nice.

The phrase is from the Steely Dan song, Green Book, which is from the group’s Everything Must Go album. [See: Everything Must Go]
It describes her perfectly because her prose is way ahead of her time.
She may have used epithets — Mongoloid, Negro — which were deemed acceptable during her time.
However, her ideas and observations and the way she expresses them are just about the very best examples of modern Philippine writing in English.

From Apartment:

“Apartments invariably mold a kind of person quite hard of hearing and more than a trifle uncaring of the rights of others. His dwelling forces him to be that way. Stifling, airless, shockingly public, the architecture of the pupular three-by-six apartment, though stylized with the latest in doorknobs and light switches…is still oppressive to all that is human in one. The soul must have room to move in, where it is quiet and dark and private, where neighbors don’t intrude with their sneezes and their grunts, where walls protect and not reveal. It isn’t a stray theory that  children who grow up in apartments must suffer some twisting, eventually acquiring much of their elders’ malicious curiosity. Thrown too closely together, separated only by a thin plaster of cement, apartment dwellers pry, listen, peep, keep track of, speculate with more than subliminal interest.”

Rushdie on the power of the novel

Rushdie at 2008 dinner honoring writer Amos Oz (David Shankbone/Wikipedia)

“There are other reasons, too, for proposing the novel as the crucial art form of what I can no longer avoid calling the post-modern age. For one thing, literature is the art least subject to external control, because it is made in private. The act of making it requires only one person, one pen, one room, some paper. (Even the room is not absolutely essential). Literature is the most low-technology of the art forms. It requires neither a stage nor a screen. It calls for no interpreters, no actors, producers, camera crews, costumiers, musicians. It does not even require the traditional apparatus of publishing, as the long running success of samizdat literature demonstrates. The [Michel] Foucault essay [What is an author?] suggests that literature is as much at risk from the enveloping, smothering forces of the market economy, which reduces books to mere products. The danger is real, and I do not want to seem to be minimizing it. But the truth is that of all the forms, literature can still be the most free. The more money a piece of work costs, the easier it is to control. Film, the most expensive of art forms, is also the least subversive. This is why, although Carlos Fuentes cites the work of film-makers like [Luis] Buñuel, [Ingmar] Bergman, and [Federico] Fellini as instances of successful secular revolts into the territory of the sacred, I continue to believe in the greater possibilities of the novel. Its singularity is its best protection.”

— From “Is Nothing Sacred?” written by Salman Rushdie and delivered by Harold Pinter as part of the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in February 1990 and published by Granta both as a pamphlet that carried the same title and in its 31st issue.

Boyle on writing

“Take the writers out of the classes, put them in dark cells with a plug for their monitors, a slot at the top of the door for pizza and a slot at the bottom for waste. Every time a finished story comes back out that top slot, you write them a check for a thousand dollars. In six months, you’ll have Tolstoy.”

T. C. Boyle, portions of response to question “What are your teaching methods?” in an interview as published in The Paris Review 155, Summer 2000