24 August 2009

Manila Times column for 23 August 2009: "Meeting National Artists for Literature"

original post here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

By Libay Linsangan Cantor
Meeting National
Artists for Literature

When we hear the title “National Artist for Literature” attached to a writer’s name, it’s but natural to admire those who carry this privileged and honorable title. It’s like being bestowed the knighthood of the literary world, in a way. But it’s more heartwarming when one discovers just how humble and helpful such “titleholders” are, especially to younger and starting writers, despite the magnanimity that their titles suggest.

I took my graduate degree in creative writing so that gave me the chance to meet several National Artists for Literature. But funny enough, I met them all outside of formal classes, except for one—Bienvenido Lumbera, conferred in 2006. But that was rather different; he was my undergraduate teacher in film theory and criticism back in UP film school. Besides writing literature, Sir Lumbera is also active as a film critic.

Before enrolling in graduate school, I was lucky to be accepted at the 1997 UP National Writers Workshops in Baguio and Cebu. NVM Gonzalez, conferred in 1990, was present in both workshops. While most were afraid of him for his no-nonsense criticism of short stories, I somehow saw him as my “literary Lolo” for he always smiled and talked to me about literary and writing tips, even outside the workshops, like how a grandfather would talk and tell stories to his grandchildren. He would even lend me books to read, leading me to authors that will somehow help me in my craft. Occasionally, he would give me mini-criticisms of articles I wrote for publications, and I was flattered because I never even knew that he read my stuff.

When I formally began my graduate studies, that was when I met another National Artist, Francisco Arcellana, conferred in 1990 like Sir NVM. Between the two, he was wackier because his sense of humor and demeanor was as unpredictable and as postmodern as the short stories he wrote, with tales and narrative styles that really revolutionized the Filipino short story in English. He kept giving me books, magazines and other stuff he no longer needed. When he discovered that I was also a photographer, he even gave me an unused photographer’s jacket someone gave him as a gift. He was around the UP College of Arts and Letters a lot, and we young writers hung out with him there, trading stories and writing tips. He even went as far as declaring to people that he wanted to be my MA thesis adviser. Too bad I took too long to finish my darned thesis, and he went ahead early. I now wonder how that venture could have gone, had he handled my thesis.

To think that these literary greats already reaped awards, published legendary books and wrote stories that defined our literature, they still had the time to hang out, share a few laughs, and mentor wannabe writers like us. That was really something.

More of these kinds of literary luminaries next week.

Comments? Suggestions? E-mail libay.scribevibe@gmail.com. She is also at libaycantor.multiply.com.

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