It was an April Fools’ Day when I found out that I was accepted as a fellow to the 11th IYAS Creative Writing Workshop, and therefore, though I was jubilant, I felt a pang of doubt. It could just be a nasty prank! Thankfully, the organizers would later dispel this suspicion when they called me to ask for my confirmation.
I first heard of IYAS from my kababayan Paul Gumanao, who had already been a fellow the year before. Iyas, which is Hiligaynon for “seed,” is one of the National Writers Workshops in the Philippines. It is held annually for five days in the Balay Kalinungan of the Saint La Salle University in Bacolod. Though it is funded by the NCCA, the workshop has always enjoyed the support of several La Salle schools and the continued patronage of the Palanca Hall of Fame awardee Dr. Elsa M. Coscolluela.
The 11th workshop was to run from the 25th to the 29th of April, with a welcoming dinner on the 24th and a tour around the city on the 30th.
I searched for details about the other fellows when I received the full list. Many of them, I found out, had been to National Writers Workshops prior to IYAS. Some had already been published in national magazines. I felt a pang of insecurity: who was I compared to these writers? And when I saw that I was the only fellow for drama, my insecurity became mixed with guilt: had I gotten in just because my entry was the only submission for drama?
With these two very negative thoughts (and the daunting thought of having to secure tickets) the weeks leading to the workshop came with a pall of gloom. I was only kept in high spirits by the conceit that I have held since I was young: that I was not just skilled, but talented.
It must have been something, though, because with just that I was convinced to pursue with the fellowship. And I have that healthy conceit to thank, for I experienced a lot of things in pursuing with the fellowship.
Travel-wise, IYAS was a first for me. This was the first time I ever took the plane alone. It was also the first time I’d been to Visayas. I remember seeing the Chocolate Hills from my window on the flight to Cebu!
In Bacolod, they took us to different historical sites. Our first visit was to the Church of the Angry Christ in the Victoria Milling plant (a misnomer, because the Christ is not really depicted as being angry). Then we went to the Balay Negrense in the Museum town of Silay, where we saw how the haciendero families lived. After that, it was to the ruins of the Mansion of Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson in the middle of a sugarcane field, the most breathtaking set of ruins I have ever seen! And finally, to the Negros Museum, where we watched a Hiligaynon adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. In addition to all these were random trips we writing fellows made within the La Salle Compound and the city proper!
Most rewarding of all was the opportunity to meet new friends. Among the people that stood out was Kuya Jayson Parba of Cagayan. We had been corresponding online and we agreed to meet in Cebu. He was travelling with Dr. Cristine Ortega of MSU IIT, one of the panelists. My first image of Dr Ortega was a doting grandmother: she was already buying things for her grandchildren when we met up in SM Cebu. As we conversed, she proved to be a fascinating expert on Mindanao lore.
Dr. Elsie hosted the welcoming dinner for the fellows. Her first introduction–“Good evening, I will be formally introduced tomorrow”–revealed a woman of unquestionable wit. Later in the workshop, she would declare: “I want to cook because I want to slay chickens.” But the food she served (which she cooked herself) was most excellent!
Our panelists were a who’s who of Philippine literature. Top of my list was Dr Marjorie Evasco, an acclaimed poet and critic. She spoke Filipino, English and Cebuano throughout the workshop flawlessly. Her critiques were thorough and detailed. Her translations were also very well done, and proved to be helpful to the fellows who did not speak Cebuano.
Dr. Danny Reyes, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, delivered critiques that were just as thorough as Ma’am Marj’s. His manner of delivery careful and controlled, every word seemed like it was prepared before it was uttered.
Our workshop director was Dr. Genevieve “Vebs” Asenjo, chair of the graduate school of the De La Salle University in Manila and one of the leading writers in Hiligaynon. While just as thorough as the other panelists, we best remembered her for her bell, with which she called everyone for the sessions.
With her was Professor John Iremil Teodoro, another leading writer in Hiligaynon and in Kiniray-a. As the liveliest of the panelists, John held our complete attention when he spoke because we knew he was about to say something funny. He was also an ardent promoter of writing in the native languages, even telling one of the fellows to stop writing in English.
Perhaps the youngest panelist was Genaro Gojo-Cruz. An alumni of the workshop, Genaro is a Palanca-award winning writer of Children’s fiction. I remember him best for the flawlessness of his Filipino.
The Singaporean poet Alvin Pang rounded out the guest panelists. Despite the cultural gap, he provided excellent comments and suggestions. His discussions on Singaporean cultural nuances and on ideas about literature that transcend culture altogether were chiefly what made the idle moments of the 5 days just as meaningful.
The fellows were also brilliant personalities. Despite my initial insecurities, I got along with them immediately.
Kuya Jayson was my roommate and with him I shared the closest bond. His two short stories in Cebuano received much praise for their careful execution. And my other newfound friends: Romeo Nico Bonsocan of Cebu, whom I predict will be the James Joyce of Cebuano if he polishes his experimental craft; Michelle Tan of Ateneo de Manila whose non-linear and postmodern stories wowed the panelists; Ioannes Arong of Cebu, who made Ma’am Marj say “I wish I wrote that” when she discussed his balak; Darylle Rubino of UP Mindanao, the protégé of Dr. Ricky de Ungria and my mentor in drinking; the laconic Ronaldo Recto of De La Salle University whose poetry spoke directly to the soul in its simple profundity; Ronn Angeles, the T.S. Eliot of our workshop who nevertheless had a biting sense of humour; Louise Amante, the Filipino poet who shared with us the goings-on of UP Criticality; Rom Peña, the Filipino fictionist who introduced me to the word “katukayo”; Chuvic Monserate, the Hiligaynon poet who served (albeit often in absentia) as our local guide; Ate Desiree Balota, a brilliant Cebuano poet; Norman Darap, the Kiniray-a fictionist and Cor Marie Abando his poet counterpart; and Rogie Bacosa, the singer who wrote lyrics in Hiligaynon for the plight of the sakadas.
And best of all, a familiar face from Davao: senior fellow Jhoanna Lyn Cruz, my mentor from the Ateneo Writers Workshop.
With these friends, I enjoyed five days of humour and wit. From my initial insecurity, I found myself making the others laugh. And wouldn’t you know it, they chose me to be the director of the batch presentation. Dr. Gloria Fuentes, the lead organizer, bestowed on me the best actor award at the end of the night.
IYAS was a learning experience in many ways.
In Bacolod, I learned that the haciendero culture is alive and well. In Balay Kalinungan, one can see the names of the prominent families and can see these same names also appear in hospitals, schools, and streets. These are people at the top of Negrense society, Dr Vebs explained. The Kabo–middlemen–follow just below them. The Sakada, the field workers, languish at the bottom of the hierarchy. The hacienderos, Iremil told us, are at the top of not only in the area but of the country as well. He cited the Lopezes, the Aranetas, and other families who dominate Philippine national politics, all of them haciendero families. At this level of society they practice endogamy, a practice Ma’am Marj explained was related to the concept of Buen Familia. Said Iremil: “Ibang mundo ang ginagalawan nila….”
Iremil also talked extensively about language. He discouraged us from writing in English, saying that Filipino literature written in English is slowly dying. Regional languages are on the rise. He quoted Leoncio Deriada, who said that the Filipino spoken in Davao is a product of the city’s melting pot. Our language here, Deriada said, is destined to be the National Language in its final form. Davao as the birthplace of the national language! How about that?
Perhaps the most persistent presence of ideas in the workshop was the clash between experimental and classical. We first saw this in our discussion of Darylle’s poem, and the panellists began questioning if his “converging narratives” worked. When he responded, “It’s an anti-poem,” a group discussion on what anti-poetry was commenced. This continued through Nico’s story, narrated by an inanimate object. Michelle’s short story “The 11th Hour,” with its nonlinear chronology, found praise, though.
I was not spared. I was told to decrease stage directions because they limited the flexibility of the director, the stage manager, and the actors. I was to capitalize the names of the characters for the benefit of the actors, and to show and not say the themes of the play. I was told to develop character motivation. As a student of Dr. Mac Tiu, who always emphasized the value of Aristotelian formalism, I largely escaped the reproach the daring experimentalists got.
Over those five days, my insecurities slowly faded away. “I’m going to rewrite this,” I said to myself as thought about my two plays, “and I’m going to write more.”
On the very last night of the workshop we had our last feast of chicken in Dr. Elsie’s house. I asked her the day before to read my work, since she was not around when I was being critiqued. After dinner, we had a one on one talk. It was a great honour to be receiving advice on playwriting from a Palanca Hall of Fame awardee. Her comments did not hurt in the way that I thought they would. I could only ask myself why I hadn’t realized them before.
More than anything else, the IYAS experience was cathartic. I entered it with self doubt. But that was purged by the clarity with which I can see the possibilities before me. When I went home on the first of May, I was filled with nothing but the determination to write, and to write with a mission.
Karlo Antonio David is an AB English student of Ateneo de Davao and a regular contributor to Dagmay. His first workshop was with the Ateneo Writers Workshop, after which he proceeded to IYAS.