Nonie Buencamino and Mailes Kanapi (top photo) breathe new life into Paz Latorena’s stories “Small Key” and “Sunset” in dramatic readings at the Artlets AVR. Literature lovers (above) view the highlights of Latorena’s short life in an exhibit at the second floor at the St. Raymund’s Building. Photos by L.G. Babiera and G. N. P. MelicorTHE ACHIEVEMENTS of Paz M. Latorena, one of the foremost writers of the first generation of Filipino English writers, in both literary writing and education, were remembered in a day-long conference and festival at UST last February 11.

The academic homage was organized by the UST Department of Humanities, Faculty of Arts and Letters, UST Literary Society and the Varsitarian to mark the death centenary of the literary pioneer and pedagogue.

In her opening remarks, Department of Humanities chair Joyce Arriola said Latorena’s works and teaching legacy to the University must be properly acknowledged.

“To celebrate the life of a great mentor is to celebrate the life of the University,” she said.

For Latorena’s former student, UST Professor Emeritus, Milagros Tanlayco, “[Latorena] was a voracious reader and a dynamic teacher. There was little place for restlessness in her class because her lectures, aside from literature, manifested religion, current events, history, philosophy and human nature.”

Writer’s roots

Paz Latorena, the youngest among the four children of Florencia Manguera and Valentin Latorena, was born on Jan. 19, 1908 in Boac, Marinduque. She finished basic schooling at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila and the Manila South High School (now the Araullo High School). In 1926, she took up Education at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila where she also attended a short story writing class under a key figure in Filipino literature in English, Paz Marquez Benitez of “Dead Stars” fame.

In 1927, Latorena received an invitation from Benitez to write a column for the Philippines Herald Magazine, of which Benitez was the literary editor. That same year, Latorena, along with other campus writers, founded the UP Writers’ Club. The Literary Apprentice, the UP Writers’ Club’s publication, then ran a short story by Latorena, “A Christmas Tale.”

Latorena also wrote poetry under the pseudonym, Mina Lys, which, according to Tanlayco, had a “romantic significance,” for the then young writer.

Before the year ended, the Marinduque native won the third prize in Jose Garcia Villa’s Roll of Honor for the Best Stories of 1927 for her story, “The Small Key.”

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For her final year of college in 1927, Latorena transferred to UST to finish her Education degree. She became the literary editor of the Varsitarian and published her poems, “Insight” and “My Last Song,” under her nom de plume Mina Lys.

She shortly earned her master’s and doctorate degree while teaching literature courses in UST. In 1934, her doctoral dissertation, “Philippine Literature in English: Old Voices and New,” received the highest rating of sobresaliente.

Latorena’s former students are now giants in Philippine letters: F. Sionil Jose, Nita Umali, Genoveva Edroza Matute, Zeneida Amador, Ophelia Dimalanta and Alice Colet-Villadolid, to name a few.

“She was a delight to listen to and was one of the writers of the most beautiful short stories in her period,” F. Sionil Jose said of Latorena in a video presentation.

“We explored the characters of Shakespeare’s stories. She was a formidable presence. We waited for the words of wisdom to fall from her lips and we were never the same after that,” Luisa Zumel, a student who was eventually inspired to be a teacher herself, said in an open forum.

In 1943, Latorena authored her last story, “Miguel Comes Home.” She died a decade later, on October 19, 1953, of cerebral hemorrhage.

Literary matriarch

Latorena’s works, as seen through the eyes of literary scholars, were thoroughly discussed through paper presentations.

For Prof. Florentino Hornedo of the UST Graduate School and Faculty of Arts and Letters, much of the American may be seen in Latorena’s works as well as shades of the Great War. “The issues of World War I were the standard readings in the classrooms of Latorena.”

In her paper, “Paz Latorena: The Quintessential Woman Writer,” UST writer-in-residence Ophelia Dimalanta gave testimony to the full-blooded characters and well-defined structure in Latorena’s stories. According to Dimalanta, “Latorena did not go by the modern plot standard,” but her stories are not to be considered inferior “because both pre-war and post-war stories have to be studied in a different light.”

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The different personas of women as portrayed in the stories of Latorena were also comprehensively discussed by Eva Kalaw. She explained that the traditional images of women—the woman as martyr, who has a free choice used for a cause or principle, and the woman as wife and mother, who lives the unarticulated life of her sex—are both dominant in Latorena’s stories.

Finally, in “The Gay Self as Myth: Confessionalism and Personal Myth-making in Gay Lyric Poetry” by UP Professor J. Neil Garcia, confessionalism, just like in Latorena’s feminist poems, was described as the “unbosoming of a painful personal experience, interweaving of public and private knowledge and the use of an intimate and conversational tone.”

Three short stories, which, according to critics and educators, established Latorena as a “matriarch” of Filipino writers in English, were “Desire,” “The Small Key,” and “Sunset.”

In teaching demonstrations conducted by UST professors, Latorena’s short stories were given new life in a classroom setting. Asst. Prof. Jack Wigley of the College of Rehabilitation Sciences dissected a Latorena piece in his “The Body as Discourse in Paz Latorena’s ‘Desire.’”

“Desire” is about a lady with no beauty of countenance, but whose voluptuous body is the object of the desire of men. According to Wigley, the female body, which is often exalted by poets, painters, and sculptors, is subjected to judgment, ridicule, aesthetic alteration and violent abuse.

Wigley said the short story portrays the concept of desire” as “not only as a site of oppression and exploitation, but also a source of female power and the perceptually emerging voice of women.”

Aside from the feminist theme as a vital element of Latorena’s works, setting, as an element of narration, is just as significant, according to Asst. Prof. Ferdinand Lopez of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, in “Tropical Solitude: The Setting as Invincible Intangible Force in Paz Latorena’s ‘Small Key.’” “The Small Key” depicts the jealousy of a woman of her husband’s dead first wife and the impossibility of her being forgiven and forgotten.

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“Sounds and Silences as Auditory Device in Paz Latorena’s ‘Sunset’” was then explored by Faculty of Arts and Letters Asst. Prof. Ralph Semino Galan. In “Sunset,” a lady leaves a man and his offer of marriage. Galan said that Latorena used poetic and metaphorical language. But, sounds may be used as effectively in speech as in music, Galan said. “Sometimes, silence is more eloquent than speech,” he said. According to him, there is a silence as a form of submission, self-repression, resignation, and gesture, all of which appear in Latorena’s works.

Exhibit, dramatic reading

Later in the afternoon, the Varsitarian opened the exhibit, “Remembering Paz M Latorena,” at the second floor of the St. Raymund’s Bldg. The exhibit surveyed the life and achievements of Latorena.

The Varsitarian also mounted a dramatic reading of “The Small Key” and “Sunset” at the Artlets AVR. Professional thespians Nonie Buencamino and Mailes Kanapi dramatized the stories under the direction of Aurora Veronika.

Kanapi commended Latorena’s stories, which she said seemed ahead of Latorena’s time. According to Kanapi, Latorena’s literary audacity “makes us push ourselves to be brave as well.”

“She was very good in describing and just knew the sentiments of a woman which probably at her time were unspoken of,” Kanapi told the Varsitarian.

For Buencamino, reading Latorena’s works was not that difficult because of the clarity of Latorena’s writing. However, “I find ‘Sunset’ more difficult because of the required energy to be put into the characters.”

“(The activities) were very informative and innovative. They gave deeper insight to the stories,” Joanna Parungao, a Literature senior, told the Varsitarian.

According to Faculty of Arts and Letters Asst. Prof. Nerisa Guevarra, the was a big boost to the morale of both educators and students, especially in the humanities,” often given short shrift in UST. She added that the activities should reintroduce Latorena to newer generations of readers. “Now, (Latorena) may be known beyond the yellowed pages of Philippine reading.”

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