Little bookshops

I’ve not gone to Baguio in ages, not since I’d gotten married, so a family trip to the City of Pines is really long overdue. Ukay-ukay bargain shopping is not even topmost in my mind now of why I want to revisit Baguio (because ukay-ukay stores have mushroomed all over Metro Manila, and how!), but this bookshop charmingly named Mt. Cloud in Casa Vallejo, an old mansion that sits atop Session Road, that describes itself as existing “for people who seek out the giddy pleasure of reading, who know the joy of buying and taking home a good find, of cuddling up with a book in a cozy corner, or of turning with reverence the pages of a beautiful, venerable book.” Mt. Cloud is owned by sisters Feliz and Padmapani L. Perez.

Because of the passing of Jorge Arago, founder of Angel’s Trumpet bookstore that started off this tradition of independent bookshops in Baguio, Mt. Cloud, in their Facebook page, called for people to share their “precious memories of Baguio’s past, independent bookshops” on their FB page or on their website.  This was my contribution.

I remember Legato Books and Music! I was a participant of the 1995 UP Writers Workshop and one of our panelists was NVM Gonzalez. The lady panelists had earlier taken off with Mrs Gonzalez to shop for silver jewelry, and so Carla Pacis, Fran Ng and I babysat NVM that afternoon. We even have a photo to show for it.

Coffee and doughnuts with a National Artist at Mister Donuts along Session road.

I forget how I found myself later alone with NVM, but I do remember walking down Session Road, telling him about this charming little bookshop I’d found the previous day. We were talking about books, and I was asking him for advice about graduate studies. He told me to take up Comparative Lit, and to make sure that I read a lot. He was pretty impressed that I’d read most of Woolf’s, EM Forster’s and Wharton’s works, among others, considering my undergrad degree was Fine Arts, and he’d also once caught me reading a book which he made me swear will be our little secret, the book he said should suffice for my course in Creative Writing. I remember being worried that the bookshop was on the third floor and the access to it was a steep, narrow stairwell; NVM had just bought a cane the previous day from the Baguio Market and was still just getting used to it. NVM made it, and he was delighted with the little bookshop that played Segovia CDs. Going around the bookshop, NVM picked up books and handed them over to me: Chekhov’s Lady with a Lapdog, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of A Heart, and because I’d also candidly asked how I should start reading him, he also included his own collection of short stories, Bookmark’s “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam and other Stories” and “The Bamboo Dancers” and a rare copy of “The Bread of Salt and Other Stories” which he was surprised to find there, because it was published by the University of Washington Press.

NVM reading “Children of the Ash-Covered Loam” (my copy, which we bought earlier at Legato) at a fellowship night for the participants of the 1995 UP Writers Workshop at Cafe by the Ruins.

I bought all five books, and happily during that time, I could easily afford to do so, because I was a well-paid jaded art director in the advertising industry. I made sure NVM signed his books which I treasure to this day. I also asked him which of his short stories was his favorite (to date, because he will yet publish A Grammar of Dreams in 1997), and he said it was “A Warm Hand” from “The Bread of Salt and Other Stories”. I still have not gotten around to taking up my grad studies in Creative Writing as I had originally planned, nor in Comparative Lit as NVM had advised, but have been working as a writer of children’s books for sixteen years now. But details of that incredible afternoon as well as snippets of my conversation with NVM in Legato Books and Music will forever be vivid in my memory.

NVM’s autograph on the cover of my copy of The Bamboo Dancers.

the same rules apply.

“There is no such thing as children’s literature.”

–NVM Gonzalez, UP Writers Workshop, Baguio, 1995

(From left to right:  NVM, Fran Ng, me & Carla Pacis)

This was what the late NVM Gonzalez told us when we asked him who–in his opinion– was the best children’s writer, foreign or local. On hindsight, it was such a naïve, slumbook-type of a question to ask of a great writer, and this was not at all surprising, because we were still all so naïve back then—as we all yet had to publish our first books–Carla Pacis, Fran Ng and I. (After the workshop, Carla and I with some of our other UP Workshop batchmates will start Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting, literally, Filipino for Writers for Children.) So, you can just imagine our shock and disappointment at his answer—he was, after all, one of our workshop panelists, and the UP Likhaan Workshop that year, with Prof Amelia Lapena-Bonifacio at the helm, was devoted to writing for children. We felt so let down.

“Either it’s literature,” NVM said, “or it’s not.”

I don’t know. Maybe because I was too slow, it would take me some years of writing before I could make any sense of what he said. Only now do I realize he hadn’t meant to be disparaging to writers of children’s books; I believe he had simply meant that if anything at all was worth writing about, it deserved to be written really well. We had prodded him, after all, to elucidate;  we asked him what he thought of writers like Oscar Wilde, for intance, who wrote “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince”.  “Ah,” NVM smiled, “But what he wrote was literature.”

You don’t choose to write for children because you think it’s easier to write. Or because you think it’s the fastest route to winning your first Palanca award for literature. You choose to write for children because you want to and you need to.

The lowdown: 1. The same (grammatical) rules apply. It’s not easy writing for children, at least books that kids will genuinely care for (because their adults are notoriously drawn to the wordy and didactic kind.). As in literature aimed at adults, there is no room for grammatical errors in writing for children.

2. Writing for children isn’t a childish endeavor. How you write for children should be pretty much the same way you write for adults—that is, with great care and a lot of attention to detail. Kids can be the toughest and most brutally honest audience to write for. Either they like your story or they don’t.

3. It takes a lot of practice, but the main challenge in writing stories for children is using the least number of words with the maximum impact. It requires preciseness, so in a way it’s much like writing poetry. Furthermore, the syntax has to be tight and uncomplicated.

NVM taught me that a writer’s objective in every writing is to achieve a gestalt to a piece. Anything you put into your story should have a critical effect on the whole, otherwise it would be superfluous.

NVM


It is NVM’s birth month, and so I am reposting an article I wrote long ago on my old blogspot site.

Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (September 8, 1915-November 28, 1999)

I met Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez, or NVM, in 1995, at the UP Baguio Writers’ Workshop. I was still an art director for an ad agency then, spending a precious week’s worth of my hard-earned vacation leave credits in a writers’ workshop.

NVM apparently loved to talk, and he talked to any of us workshoppers willing to listen–about everything. One time he noticed a book I was reading (a book about fiction-writing). He said he also had a copy of the book, too, and that he read a chapter every night before he went to sleep. He advised me to do the same, and with a wink, he told me to keep the book our little secret. I’ve not divulged the title and the author to any other soul, to this day (well, except perhaps A–but he’s my husband, and I made him swear he’ll keep it a secret, too).Everything he said, I wanted to take down in my notebook–such gems of advice from a wonderful, generous, writer. He learned that I was going to Bali the week after the workshop because my office was sending me to the company’s regional leadership workshop. He handed me his business card and a P500 note, asking me to look for a Ganesh sandalwood figurine for him, and told me to look up his Indonesian friend, RMAF awardee Pramoedya Ananta Toer (was not sure if he really meant for me to look Toer up or he was just joking) I did not buy him a Ganesh figurine, however. Surprisingly, there weren’t any nice Ganesh figurines in Bali–all of them looked very ugly and evil, and none resembled at all the picture of the benevolent Hindu elephant-god I had in my mind (he’s supposed to bring joy and happiness to the home). So I got him an elegantly carved sandalwood Shiva figurine from Ubud instead, and prayed he wouldn’t mind.

This–plus his change for his P500–was what brought me to his house at Mabini Street in the UP Campus a couple of weeks later, where I got a lecture on metaphors, Vladimir Nabokov , Henry James, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, his favorite author Anton Chekhov and hack writing, gestalt and creating a “synergistic wholeness” to stories, and an introduction to comparative lit via his former teacher’s book, The Story: A Critical Anthology by Mark Schorer (which he even let me take home to read and study). He also talked about the book he was working on, “A Grammar of Dreams and Other Stories”, the writers’ retreat he and Narita were planning to build in his beloved Mindoro, his weekly column in the Manila Times, the plagiarism on a batchmate’s work allegedly made by a panelist in our workshop , among others.  All these, incredibly, in just one afternoon.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind the Shiva I got instead of the Ganesh he asked for (or he was just too polite to tell me he did mind).

After that Saturday, I would find a reason to go back to his house a couple of Saturdays later–to return the Schorer anthology.  I was so privileged to have gone to those meetings with him in his bungalow in UP, where I enjoyed the mini-lectures on literature and writing, over fluffy ensaimadas and brewed coffee which the very gracious and elegant Mrs. Gonzalez served. I even got critiques for two of my stories, which eventually got published in the Philippine Graphic Weekly (one of which–“A Harvest of Tadpoles”–came out incredibly only two weeks after I mailed it–it was not at all unheard of to wait several weeks or even months for a publication, or worse, a rejection slip) and because I had mentioned to him during the Baguio workshop that I was thinking of pursuing graduate studies in creative writing, he even gave me a reading list (which mostly consisted of stories from the Schorer anthology), and a list of books which included titles written by women writers (he liked Elizabeth Bowen). And the top book on that must-read list was Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog and Other Stories. Looking back, those afternoons comprise what I now consider to be my whole course on comparative literature and creative writing (my undergrad course was Fine Arts, after all).  Most important of all, he gave me this advice, “If you want to write, take Comparative Lit, not Creative Writing.”

And during a pause in his lecture (for it was really more like a lecture than a conversation), I asked him how I should start reading him (because I bought all the available NVM books I could get my hands on at Legato Bookstore in Baguio, where we went when we took the cab ride pictured above), and he said that I could start with A Bread of Salt and Other Stories. It had seemed like a dumb question to ask, but I asked it anyway;  I honestly wanted to know which story was his favorite in the collection.  He said it was “A Warm Hand”.

He passed away on November 28, 1999, and I was too busy with my sad life at the time I wasn’t even able to attend his necrological services and tribute at the CCP.

Looking back now, it all seems so surreal I met him, even much less that I talked to him at all, about books and writing. But to show for it, I still keep NVM’s blue calling card, and that close-up picture I took of him in the cab ride we shared in Baguio.

July 13, 2005