An Affair with English
By Danton Remoto
Business Mirror Newspaper
July 21, 2008
This column is part of the series on Planet English sponsored by the British company Pru-Life to promote the English language and writing in English in the Philippines.
HOW did you begin to write? And why in English?
Friends and strangers alike would ask me that question. But the notion of beginning still surprises me until now.
As a child, I loved to draw, to memorize in my mind’s eye images of the passing day. I also loved to read—I would finish reading my English textbooks in one week, when we were supposed to read them for the whole year. I read ravenously and I read everything—the ingredients in a can of soup, the newspaper my father bought every day, the Philippine Journal of Education my mother subscribed to, the ten-volume Children’s Classics that an uncle had given to us.
I grew up in Basa Air Base, Pampanga, in a small white house with a sloping roof and French windows. My father was a soldier, when soldiers were still honorable, and my mother taught Music in school. The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories by the peerless Gregorio Brillantes was the first book I bought with my own money. Listen to the reasons he writes, spoken in the third person.
“The answer . . . was tied up somehow with the town in Tarlac where he was born, and the acacias beside the house where he grew up, the sounds that wind and rain made in them. In that house, its rooms suffused with a clear white light in his memory, he learned that words, combinations of them, could unlock the doors to fancy and fable: the strange lands visited by Gulliver, Lord Greystoke shipwrecked on the African shore . . . .”
Memory is the mother of all writing, it has been said, and many of my memories are tied up with the books I read in English, or imprinted in my mind in English. I was born of a generation when you were fined five centavos if you spoke a word of Tagalog in school, and you did not only learn in English—you also had to be excellent in it! Essays written with a good hand in perfect English were marked 100 and tacked on the bulletin board for the entire world to see.
After my father resigned from military service, we moved to Quezon City. Our textbooks included the Philippine Prose and Poetry series, published in the 1950s and constantly reprinted. It collected the brightest and the best writing in English done by Filipinos, and I was amazed at its quality. I still remember “The Scent of Apples” by Bienvenido N. Santos, where the photograph of a Filipina in a terno is slowly fading in a crumbling house. I remember “May Day Eve” by National Artist Nick Joaquin, whose long, first sentence is also its first paragraph—a startling, shimmering train of words that sinuously moves from page to page. It left me breathless.
I went to college at the Ateneo—my prize for winning the plum spot in a nationwide essay-writing contest for high-school students, in English. The prize said I could go to a school of my choice, and I went to the Ateneo, because it was the school nearest my house and I could walk to and from school. One day in college, the writer Linda Ty-Casper came and gave us a workshop.
Mrs. Casper was the valedictorian of her class at the UP College of Law and has an MA in Law from Harvard, but she chose to write novels about Philippine history—in English. She affected no airs, was quiet and dependable, like the maroon Volkswagen that picked her up from her parents’ house in Malabon and brought her to Ateneo every day. I was young and shy, given to dark moods I could never understand, but the words of Mrs. Casper were most instructive.
“We can survive almost anything, as long as we know that what we are suffering has been suffered before. When our time comes to falter, we can take comfort in the small, triumphant gestures that rendered someone, very much like ourselves, indestructible despite death. Or we can ignore literature and banish ourselves from our own lives.”
When you are young and in love with English, these words could make your day. I knew, then, that I wanted nothing else in the world, except to write. My days began to blaze with happiness because I could put order to the chaos—even the sadness—of life.
I was dazed with words. I kept a journal where I wrote poems, shards of memory, the tug of dreams. During those days, as Marcel Proust would put it, “an hour [was] not merely an hour. It [was] a vase filled with perfumes, plans, sounds and climate.”
I was in love with English and I was in love with words. I knew, then, that I was finally home.