The world of words

So what are you doing now and will you still leave the country?” someone asked me via email last week. I get tons of email every day, and twice as many through Messenger in my Facebook. That’s why I tell people to send me emails because they stay there. The ones on Messenger get buried, as if by a tsunami of words.

My main work is as Professorial Lecturer at San Beda University, the first institution of higher learning that offered me work after my contract at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia expired. I wanted to work at the State University but it seems they already have too many teachers. Ateneo de Manila University also has no extra teaching load, with its slew of part-timers. I said “yes” to SBU which had offered me to teach years ago. I was also supposed to teach at Far Eastern University, but I was waiting for the renewal of contract overseas, so FEU had to look for other teachers.

In the first cycle of this semester at San Beda, I taught the Literature of Europe and England. How to teach such a vast subject matter in six weeks, via online? I chose slim but substantial novels: The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and The Outsider (UK version, The Stranger)by Albert Camus.

I deepened our discussion by asking the students to write a paper of three pages, double spaced, on their reactions to the novels. I didn’t want a PowerPoint presentation. Those glib slides, studies have shown, don’t produce a deeper impression on the brain cells of students. Then in our online classes, I asked the students to read their papers. It was a chance to correct their diction (defined as both a choice of words and as a way of speaking). It was also a chance to show to them one technique in writing: read your work aloud, preferably in front of a mirror. If your jaw and mouth have difficulty reading the sentence, then it has too many long and useless words that need to be deleted.

We also took up poetry from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Italy and Latin America (as part of Spanish poetry in translation). And we found time to squeeze in short fiction from Ireland, England, Australia (as part of the British Commonwealth) and Europe. And of course, the slim but substantial novels.

Students like it when you ask their opinions, what they think of the work. They also appreciate it when you give them the contexts that shaped the creation of the texts. And lastly, they thank you when you point out themes (statements about life) and lessons (not moral but life) that can be gleaned from the texts at hand. The purpose of literature, after all, is to teach about life.

For the second cycle of this semester, I’ve been assigned to teach Philippine Popular Culture. The two successive typhoons have delayed online classes, but we’re on track to look at frameworks for reading the texts, which aren’t just printed but also multimedia. We will look at films, TV shows, komiks and food. That is all we can tackle in the six weeks we have, plus midterms and finals. They will watch Filipino films and for TV, they can do telenovelas or Filipino Boys’ Love series. Someone is already excited to discuss his hometown’s famous food fare and, of course, the young ones are all agog about manga comics and anime.

For Asian Literature, I’ve already sent them online texts on the Japanese haiku and the poems of the T’ang Dynasty (Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu). A sheaf of stories from Southeast Asia is already on the wings. Their first assignment is to look for a slim but substantial Asian novel published from 1970s to the present. And “no,” you can’t write about my book, “Riverrun, A Novel” just published by Penguin Random House South East Asia.

A ripple runs across the online chat room when they hear that Penguin Books has published their teacher. I just told them it was an old novel that no one wanted to publish in the Philippines, so I sent a revised version to Penguin. They wrote me the next day saying they’re interested, but how do I propose to sell my book to a global market?

Because it is a global market out there. I checked, where my novel is classified as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) literary fiction, and I’m ranked as number 2000. In short, 1,999 books sell better than mine, but I don’t mind. The important thing is that it’s now out there, in the whole wide world, after staying for 25 years under my bed. Target, the famous store chain in the United States, has picked up my novel and is selling it online. On the other side of the Atlantic, Waterstone’s, one of my favorite bookstores in the UK, is doing the same.

The Manila International Online Book Fair will also launch my novel, “Riverrun,” on Nov. 25, Wednesday, at 2-3 p.m. Fellow writer and Penguin author Noelle Q. de Jesus (author of the book, Cursed & Other Stories) and I have already pre-recorded the video interview. You may join the virtual book launch by going to the Facebook Page of the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

“So are you leaving again?” and frankly my answer is “I don’t know.” I like it here in the Philippines, in spite of the strong storms, the weak WiFi and the terrible traffic jams, but I can’t write here. There are so many demands on my time. So the only reason I might leave again is to have a long stretch of time to write my next novel.

The world of words awaits me.

Published in my column, “Lodestar,” in the Philippine Star. I have been writing this column for the Star in the last 20 years.

The world of words
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