The N.V.M. Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop, the Philippines
We storytellers spend the ferry ride cycling in and out of an air-conditioned cabin, pausing now and then to watch the ocean below us. Our boat carries us skipping across Batangas Bay to Mindoro, the birthplace of N.V.M. Gonzalez. Our writers’ workshop group is an experiment in cultural cross-over. We are half self-defined Filipinas, and half self-defined Filipina Americans, all of us roped together with the requisite hugs and smiles that occur just before a workshop, when you know the next four days will be spent within dangerously close proximity. I sit next to a group of Filipina writers who share a plastic bag of mandarin oranges, peeling it with yanks, the citrus liquid spurting onto their hands as they whisper gossip about American celebrities. I must be a disappointment to them, a fourth-generation Filipino American illiterate in both Tagalog and Celebrity.
Next to me a self-defined Filipina lies asleep, her white tennis shoes propped on her friend’s leg, her body kept in place by the careful balance of her limbs. I envy her sleep. My head has been pounding for hours, still reeling from Manila’s nightlife. Images of cabaret dancers and bakla hairdressers overload my brain. My breath still smells like Cuban cigars. My senses tingle in corporeal memory. On this vacation workshop, we’re supposed to be writing about our histories, our families, and all the things that connect us to the Philippines. In this sacred pursuit of art, I plan to lie about everything.
“Are you feeling sick?” one of the Americans, Anna, asks me. I tell her it’s just the jet lag. She looks at me cross, knowing that I came from Hong Kong, which is in the same time zone as the Philippines. That’s still one step better than telling her that the Filipino food has made me sick. One could do no worse than get sick off of the food of their own people.
Anna lets me get away with that one, and I sit like the others, with a pen and notebook in my hands, poised to write. I look at the sun, the ocean, the sky, and then at the sleeping woman, her head now hanging lifelessly over the armrest like a deflated balloon.
I wander about the wooden deck, wondering when I should pretend inspiration has grabbed me. “I’m too fat to be here,” I can’t help but say out loud, staring at my growing lumps. My workshop story: how did you get here, fat? And why won’t you leave? Fat. Doesn’t it prove we’re all American?
“We’re here to celebrate N.V.M.’s life,” we’re reminded. N.V.M. Gonzalez, National Artist of the Philippines. “N.V.M.” sounds like a wicked name. The Vice President, Jejomar Binay, is also three names put together (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary). Maybe there’s something to this name-jamming. Is there a point when your multiple identities, your multiple names, can be shortened to a simple, self-made tag? It’s already getting old calling myself Filipino, Irish, and Chinese. Could I just be a F.I.C., a fic-American? A Fictive American?
The ferry skids along. I return to sit with the Filipina Americans, smiling kindly at the Filipinas sitting across the bench, unsure what kind of gestalt inspiration we’re supposed to be getting from them. But the Filipinas don’t stare. They all have 3G internet. So the Americans stare at the Filipinas staring at American music videos, each of us, perhaps, trying to put this lack of feeling into words.