THREE Thomasian writers were introduced to the literary community via the Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets & Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists), the well-known writers group founded by National Artist F. Sionil Jose and chaired by National Artist Bienivenido Lumbera, both Thomasians, through the regular PEN book club discussion at Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila last April 27.

Launched—and discussed—were Augusto Antonio Aguila’s The Heart of Need and Other Stories, Ralph Semino Galan’s Discernments, and John Jack Wigley’s Falling into the Manhole: A Memoir. The books are published by the UST Publishing House.

To introduce the writers, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, director of UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies (CCWLS), said that the emergence of new writers in the literary scene is always a reason for a celebration.

“These three books are a sign of the blossoming of letters in the country's oldest educational institution—an institution which has reason to be proud of its own in the nation's literary art,” she said.

Galan’s Discernments is a book of critical essays. It contains literary critiques, particularly of the works of National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo and UST’s poetry queen, the late Ophelia Alcantara-Dimantala.

The book also contains essays on cultural studies. In fact, during the PEN affair, Galan, a faculty member of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, read excerpts from the essay, “Dancing to Tell the Nation’s Economic Divide,” which relates ballet to Philippine society.

Through the book, Galan, chiefly a poet, signals his entry into criticism and essay writing. During the launch, he said he had always thought he could only write poetry: “It was my strength as well as my limitation.”

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But Jose, owner of the Solidaridad Bookshop, disagreed. “You cannot imprison art either with rules or with actual imprisonment of writers,” he noted, “because you might just as well imprison life itself because art is in a sense not an expression, not a limitation of life but the essence of art—the essence of life is art.”

Sensitive fiction

Also going out of his comfort zone is Aquila, whose The Heart of Need and Other Stories is his first collection of short stories. Aguila is more known as author of a textbook on literature used on campus, faculty member of the Faculty of Pharmacy, and executive assistant to UST Rector Fr. Herminio Dagohoy, OP.

Aguila appears more venturesome in deviating from his usual cup of tea by tackling in his fiction very sensitive topics such as heartbreak and eroticism.

Aguila said he had ventured into fiction when he joined a fiction writing class of Dimalanta while working for his M.A. in 2006. He said a work he did in class was later published in the CCWLS’ literary journal, Tomas, an affirmation of sorts.

Because of sex and other sensitive topics he tackled in his fiction, he further explained how censorship was a “ticklish issue” and how a good writer imposes upon himself his own sense of morality knowing that there is a thin line between art and pornography. “As a teacher who teaches in the Royal, Pontifical and Catholic University of the Philippines, we are also guided by certain principles. And as thinking individuals, we also know our limitations. “

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Jose agreed with Aguila. “In writing,” the National Artist said, “there is no obscenity but just bad writing.”

Genuine storytelling

Since his book, Falling Into the Manhole, consists of memoirs, some of them funny, some painful, Wigley said he should have written fiction instead.

“Looking back I wish I could have written fiction because it is very hard to talk about yourself," Wigley said.

Like Aguila and Galan, Wigley in his book is charting heretofore terra incognita. He’s a textbook writer, a faculty member of the College of Rehabilitation Sciences and director of the UST Publishing House. (His book was approved for publication during the incumbency of the former director, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo.)

Falling into the Manhole: A Memoir is Wigley's first courageous step toward creative non-fiction. His work is a collection of his own personal narratives and memoirs from his experiences about growing up in close proximity to the Clark Air Base in Pampanga. He experienced a host of marginalizations since he was poor, biracial and illegitimate.

By reading an excerpt from one of the chapters titled “The Missing Link,” he shared his literal search for his American father.

The possibility of being the “target for scrutiny” when writing confessional stories is something Wigley also had to consider. Although it was difficult for him to write his story on paper, he announced how emancipating it felt afterward. In addition, it was a way for him to articulate his identity.

“Giving his memories shape and form through the writing of them has enabled Wigley to understand his past and come to terms with it,” said Hidalgo in her introduction to the book.

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Jose welcomed the new authors. “Writers as individuals can be very courageous and very strong,” he said. “They serve to remind us how much courage it takes to take a step in an unknown world and express yourself, just like what Aguila, Galan and Wigley did.” With reports from JON CHRISTOFFER R. OBICE

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