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Baguio writer bares out his latest literary offerings and more

by Mojo Potato
Thursday, July 10, 2008

After spending more than a decade as an information officer at the Philippine embassy in London, while experiencing first hand the Filipino diaspora, Edgar Maranan is back in the literary limelight in his homeland to do what he does best - writing with passion.

Receiving a plethora of literary awards here and abroad including recognition in the Hall of Fame in the prestigious Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literarture, Maranan claims his greatest achievement to date are his new poetry book Passage Poems 1983-2006 and his six latest children's books all published by Bookmark.

Now a full-time freelance writer and active member of the Baguio Writers Group, Maranan was also recently commissioned by CCP's Tanghalang Pilipino, to write a full length rock-musical play EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson interweaving the lives of two popular martyrs of the resistance movement against the Marcos dictatorship.

Mojo Potato connects with Ed Maranan to know his literary inspirations back when he was still in high school at SLU Boy's High and his latest literary offerings.

1. Having spent most of your early years in Baguio, who were your literary inspirations (both foreign and local writers) while you were still in SLU High School up to the present?

My latest poetry book, Passage / poems 1983-2006, is dedicated to my late friend and SLU Boys High '63 classmate, George Alvarez. He was our original class poet and the one most familiar with the works of William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe (after whom I was named by my father), and even poets not studied in our class, 'early moderns' Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, e.e.cummings and Carl Sandburg (for years my favorite poet). George encouraged me to read these poets, and to write poetry. We even collaborated on gushy acrostics dedicated to those beings who lived on the other side of the world-St. Louis Girls High. In college, another world of poetry opened up for me: Pablo Neruda, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Carolyn Forche, Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Clive James, Octavio Paz, Wole Soyinka, Federico Garcia Lorca, Mao Zedong, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, James Fenton, Cecil Rajendra, Dennis Brutus, Michael Ondaatje, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Bertolt Brecht, so many others. But during the past twenty years, I have come to engage more with our Philippine literary tradition, in both Filipino and English, and I owe a lot to having read the works of Amado V. Hernandez, Virgilio Almario, Lamberto Antonio, Roger Mangahas, Teo Antonio, Jess Santiago, Romulo Sandoval, Fidel Rillo, Cirilo Bautista, Jimmy Abad, Alfred Yuson, Butch Macansantos, Maria Luisa Igloria, Rowena Tiempo, Gelacio Guillermo, Jose Ma. Sison, Epifanio San Juan, Ophelia Dimalanta…and these are just the poets, known for their excellence in craft, with a number of them also manifesting a deep awareness of social and political issues in Philippine history. There are more-the fiction writers and essayists, from Carlos Bulosan to F. Sionil Jose and Nick Joaquin, from Salvador Lopez to Pete Daroy and Luis Teodoro. Literature as sharp, elegant, and always relevant social commentary is the hallmark of these writers and their contemporaries.

2. Having written so many award-winning books for children, poetry, plays and short stories, what do you think is your greatest achievement so far? Why?

I would say my latest book of poetry and my six children's books-three in Filipino and three in English-all published by Bookmark. My poems are about my actual voyages to places near and far and my impressions of people and nature found therein, as well as my symbolic voyages through aspects of social reality and into my own consciousness; attempts to document human struggles and human foibles, and to define what I truly value as I go along in life.

3. Why were you inspired to come up with your latest poetry collection, Passage / Poems 1983-2006?

It's been years since my first two books of prize-winning poetry, Alab / mga tula and Agon / poems, came out. These were published by the UP Asian Center and the UP Press in 1983. My third volume contains four collections of poems which won Palanca awards in the intervening years-(Voyage, 1984; Hinterland, 1987; Star Maps, 1988; and Tabon, 2000). This year I would like my fourth book of poetry to be published, and it will be a sequel to my first collection of Tagalog poetry, or since Alab is out of print, I might combine selections from it and my more recent works.

4. Among the poems in your latest book, what is the most special in terms of its meaning. Why?

I would pick out a poem each from all the chapters, a piece that I think would best represent the most interesting aspects of my life: my travels, my impressions of other places and cultures, my relationships, and my concerns about social reality, nature and the environment. So I guess there's not one particular poem I would single out in this collection.

5. After spending many years in London, you came back to the Philippines to stay for good a couple of years back to focus on your Creative Writing endeavors. Why is that so?

Well, I had a choice of looking for another job in London after my contract with the DFA ended. But I was missing, first, my parents. My father has not been well since he suffered a stroke ten years ago. They're both getting on in years, and I felt I should be closer to them. And second I was missing the literary scene. I had not produced as much creative work as I should have during all those years spent abroad, and they seem to me now like lost years. I've settled down to a simple life as a freelancer, and I have two basic goals in mind: find publishers for all my works that have won prizes in the Palanca, PBBY (Philippine Board on Books for Young People) and other literary competitions; and write more poetry, fiction, essays and plays. But because a writer must first survive-this is not a good time for a writer to be idle, especially with the price of rice and other commodities-I have to take on writing jobs such as translations and biographies.

6. Among the stories, poems, plays etc. that you have written, what has made the biggest impact on your literary career?

Some of my prize-winning works seem to have had an impact for the novelty that they represented. My play Ang Panahon ni Cristy attracted attention because it was written in prison during martial law, and still won a Palanca grand prize. So that was a political and literary coup of sorts, a statement, which must have assured the play an audience. My recent play EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson imagined a philosophical discourse between these two dead heroes who never knew each other in real life, and was made a vehicle to revive the memory of the evil that was martial law, but while moving audiences to the point of tears elicited mixed reviews from critics. Some of my newer poems have been praised, some of my earlier ones panned for being too obscure. Many of my works were good enough to win, and win big in literary competitions, but have remained unpublished, and therefore unjudged by the reading public. I think it's just the sheer number of my literary awards that has given me some recognition in the literary world. I'm supposed to have the most Palanca awards by any Filipino writer, living or dead-thirty in all. I guess my works could be fully judged when all are eventually published and read by an audience much bigger than the boards of literary judges who gave their nod of approval. But I wish I could write just one brilliant novel, or just one epic poem, or just one awesome play, that could fully capture our reality, our struggle, our destiny as a nation. That would be the supreme literary reward. .

7. In your book Passage / poems, you have shown sights, sounds, stories and feel of the places that you've traveled. Which of these places would you love to go back to and write about again? Why?

Locally, Batanes, Palawan and Sagada. And abroad, China and Ubud in Indonesia. Batanes, especially in its early years, seems to be not a microcosm of the Philippines. The landscape, the culture, the tranquility, the peace and order, the friendliness of the people, the surrounding sea-it's a place for writing, really. Palawan for similar reasons: the highland traditions, the indigenous crafts and music, the deep wisdom of their social discourse and the harmony within the community-you could write an epic. But just like all other indigenous people in the country, they live in peril, on the brink of extinction. I was in China in 1983 and 1987, as the socialist construction was in fever pitch. I toured Yenan, the wartime HQ of the revolution. I saw the remaining poverty. In just a few years, what a big change! From Yenan to Yang Lifei (first Chinese astronaut) is a Great Leap Forward. I'd like to see the changes, and write about them. I have no poem about Ubud in the book, but I was there last year for the Writers Festival. I want to visit Ubud again and write about the interesting integration of arts, community, religion and agriculture, and the literary scene.

8. As a Filipino writer, what makes you proud of our rich literature? Why?

I have given hints of this in my answers above. Our writers in both English and our other national languages (Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Bicolano, etc.) are continuing a tradition in written literature which began during colonial times. And our oral tradition-as exemplified by our grand epics but no less by the folklore expressed in the shorter forms of legend, aphorism and poetry-goes back even centuries earlier. I collaborated in the translation of the Palawan epic Kudaman into Tagalog, and I was introduced to a different world of indigenous wisdom and oral history disguised as myth and fantasy. Cordillera culture is one of the richest sources of this deeply rooted tradition in our history. And it is not only technical skills and labor power that identify the Filipino abroad-we have an emerging community of diaspora writers, particularly in America, who are chronicling the Filipino expatriate experience even as they continue to draw inspiration and sustenance from their native values, their homeland culture.

9. The book Passage Poems showed that you have made poetry part of your daily life. Why do you think you're so engrossed with literature?

For the same reason that artists are engrossed with their art: they wish to re-create, interpret, reshape, reassemble, dissect, record, transform, or explain external as well as their 'internal' reality within and also beyond the confines of the canvas. And you can get a certain high (or low, if you're Van Gogh) once you've done an ouvre. For the same reason that master chefs can be the most vain, harshly critical and self-satisfied of all artists. They have to come up with the perfect stuff each time because they aim to please as they feed. Same with writing, except that the results are not uniformly good, and you have to keep on bettering your craft, exerting more effort than perhaps both artist and chef. Bad art can be an art form unto itself, and you can still eat a chef's mistake. But bad writing brings no rewards.

10. Aside from creative writing, do you have other things that preoccupy you?

Well, I'm a closet artist (I've done some miniature drawings and watercolors, which I will unleash on the unsuspecting world someday) and I like to cook. I can please more people with my recipes than with my writings. I play a few musical instruments, but not as well as I would like to, so I play absolutely only for myself, and only to get rid of writer's block. I also water my plants, a total of ten pots.

11. One genre in literature that you have found most success in is writing stories for children. Why do you think writing stories for children is important?

It depends on what kind of stuff one writes for children. There's a danger that we feed them too much fantasy. There might be some socially redeeming value in what JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have created, but their characters and themes might be reinforcing escapism, mythology and superstition, and I'm not sure that's the stuff children's minds should develop with or grow on. Of course you can say they'll outgrow these stories. Well, one never outgrows the values taught by Aesop's fables, or the stories of Lola Basiang, or the Adarna books and other Filipino children's literature. So ultimately it's a choice to be made by children, or for children. It's never too early to expose children to social and political issues that resonate in the real world, in the Filipino world, such as the environment, and peace, and justice, and governance. In fact the ogres, witches and monsters in real life, especially in the Philippines, are more horrible than Voldemort or the Orcs. And they're harder to kill. Oops, sorry, children, I mean to conjure out of existence.

12. As a playwright, one of your latest works was EJ. What inspired you to come up with the play? Why do you think is it relevant in the current situation of the country right now?

It was actually the idea of the creative team at CCP's Tanghalang Pilipino, particularly the Executive Director, Joy Soler de Castro, stage director Chris Millado and artistic director Dennis Marasigan. They came up with the idea of a play about combining the stories of two famous martyrs murdered by the Marcos regime, Evelio Javier the reformist and Edgar Jopson the revolutionary. They were both Ateneo graduates and shared the same initials, hence the title. But they never met in real life. What if they did, in a play? With this interesting gambit worked out, CCP looked for a playwright, and I think someone told them I was back in town and looking for a writing job. It was a huge challenge, and despite some critical comments, I still think the play managed to get through to a lot of people, especially young audiences who never experienced the First Quarter Storm, martial law, and the People Power uprising. In their comments-and many of these appear in blogs-they express the realization that the issues in EJ's time remain the same today, that the calls for change-either through reform or revolution-remain valid and relevant.

13. Lastly, Do you have any message to young writers in the city?

Since the city's Centennial is just a year away, it would certainly be helpful for the people of Baguio, and especially for the young writers, if we were to examine and write about what has seemingly gone wrong-well, also what's gone right-with this city. What's gone right is of course the growth of the arts and literature and a deepening commitment to preserve the cultural heritage of the Cordillera of which Baguio is a part. But this will be for naught if we don't take stock of what's gone wrong, which has everything to do with politics, a skewed sense of development, the blight of urbanization, and the unrelenting onslaught on the environment. These are concerns which are writ large in the national context. Baguio's plight can only be understood in the light of the country's present predicament. For example, Jun Lozada's recent appearance in the city "in search of the truth" has as much relevance to the life of Baguio people as our campaign to save what remains of our pine tree forests. Writers are witnesses, and they must speak up-for the truth, for the environment, for the people.

This was supposed to be an article for a local daily. However, the tastes of my editors in the choice of articles change from time to time. probably it was so lengthy.

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