The Philippine PEN at 61
By Virginia Jasmin Pasalo
THE Philippine PEN is a senior citizen. It is a member of the International PEN, “a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921 to increase friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere.” Initially, the letters P, E, and N stood for “Poets, Essayists and Novelists” but the organization has evolved to include “any other kinds of writers, such as journalists and historians.” It also aims to strengthen the role of literature in “developing international understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to act as a powerful voice to help writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views. It is the world’s oldest human rights organization.”
During the 61st Philippine Pen Congress, with the theme, “Writing the Nation: The Filipino Writer and Nation-Building”, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, founder of Philippine PEN, recounted the birth pains of the organization and its journey towards the defense of freedom, especially under martial law to an audience largely composed of millennials, whom he exhorted to read history and literature that make writers “know” about the country and its history, to be able to “write the nation” well. Writing today, he said, has too much attention to form. He reminded those who teach writing, that they may be able to teach the craft, “but you cannot teach imagination, intuition and creativity”, and “must stop the conduct of literary workshops that homogenize writings.”
In the presence of the millennials, Sionil Jose was very pleased, intimating that he wants the youth to join the PEN. It is a vision that needs an imaginative strategy, a realistic implementation plan, and most important, creative engagement with sectors critical in nation-building. At 61, the organization can breathe a freshness, by opening its doors to the millennials who are currently writing the “nation”.
Historian Fe Mangahas, Vice-Chair of the Women in Development (WID) Foundation, asked, “What is a nation? Can we write a nation?” A difficult one to answer, even for a national artist. It is a question all writers have to ask themselves.
It was an interesting session interrupted by a lunch break, made humorous with the announcement of Santiago Villafania: “First to line up will be the senior citizens and the members of the PEN….” Most of the PEN members were seniors, and they constituted most of the seniors who were present. After the “priority group”, all the others, majority of whom were millennials, lined up. Not anticipating the overflow, food threatened to disappear from the tables. Half-way through the line, Santiago announced, “Those of you who were not able to get food, you have the option to go out and grab some food at Jollibee.” The famished mosquito about to feast on woman’s leg departed as she rushed to the queue, deciding to bite another day. Her name was Tara.
so fast, and quiet, you descend, in the silence.
in a moment, soft light blends
swallowing all traces of the dark
with the chorus of cocks
birds sharing tunes
the next bite.
a mosquito hovers, digging
its straw into warm skin
her last meal, blood writing
a hasty epitaph.
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