Saturday, June 01, 2013

How to Make a Davao Writer

Merlie Alunan is now a Davao writer.

It’s not an empty boast. She said so herself, or, rather, she agreed when I told her she was. So just how did we snag an esteemed poet of the Visayas into our fold? Ah, now there’s a tale.

Not long after the Taboan Writers Festival in Dumaguete last February, Rosario “Chari” Cruz-Lucero of UP Diliman sent me an email with a proposition: would Ateneo de Davao be willing to hold the book launch for Merlie’s “Ang Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw”?

We had hosted a launch for Chari back in September of last year for two of her books, “La Isla” and “The Nation Outside Manila”. She was very pleased with the response from the Davao community, and now she was asking if we could do the same for Merlie.

Merlie Alunan, for those who don’t know her, is a teacher and poet. She studied under the Tiempos, and then taught for some years at Silliman University, and then for many more years UP Visayas in Tacloban up until her retirement. Along the way, she mentored many young writers and earned the respect and admiration of many in the Philippine literary community.

“Ang Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw” was Merlie’s fourth book of poetry but the first she wrote in entirely Visayan -- not merely Cebuano but Hiligaynon and Waray as well. It was a project ten years in the making, and perhaps the work most dear to her.

And so I said yes. Apparently, I have some clout now as Ateneo has placed me in charge of its University Publication Office. (If only they knew....)

But first there was the question of the timing. February was too close, and March, being the end of the school year, was too packed with activities. April and May would be lean months because of summer break, but June was too far away. In the end, I bit the bullet and decided on May, timing it with the Ateneo de Davao Writers Workshop.

On one hand, holding a book launch is easy: you reserve the venue, draw up the posters, write press releases, lasso reviewers (usually friends of the writer), and arrange for intermission numbers. On the other hand, it’s a nail-biting experience: what if very few people show up? In a society where literature isn’t among the top pursuits, that’s a very real and very embarrassing possibility.

In the weeks leading up to the launch, I exchanged emails with Merlie about her travel arrangements and with Ateneo de Manila Press for shipment of the books. All the while, my anxiety about the audience was mounting. If nothing else, I would have my workshop fellows but would that be enough?

And yet, at the end, the pieces just started falling into place. Since the book launch would take place around the same time as the writers workshop, Merlie offered to give the keynote address at that Monday’s opening. Merlie spoke on poetry, imagination, and the sense of country, giving all of us present something to think about. After the keynote, we squeezed in a radio interview and on-air poetry reading.

All my anxieties about audience finally disappeared during the book launch on Wednesday. No, it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was a meaningful one.

There were, first of all, the members of the Davao Writers Guild, including our grand dames Tita Ayala and Aida Rivera Ford. The guild is a tight community, very supportive and very encouraging, and for this I’m proud to be a member.

And then there was the Humanities Cluster of Ateneo de Davao. The department chairpersons provided the staff and food. Our theater group, Teatro Humanidades, prepared the intermission numbers.

And then there were the fellows of the writers workshop, partaking in their very first book launch, immersing in the new experience.

And, finally, there was the drawing power of the guest of honor herself. There were her relatives and friends and former students come to show their affection and support; but there were also unexpected guests. Writer Lina Sagaral-Reyes came in from Zamboanga, and doctor-writer Noel Pingoy from General Santos.

And quite a few more. By the time we started, our small venue was packed. But just for good measure, I blackmailed and bribed a few of my IT students to join in, too.

The program was short and simple. Our Literature Department chair gave the welcome remarks. Jhoanna Cruz of UP Mindanao introduced our guest. Mac Tiu, now of Philippine Women’s College, and Nino de Veyra of UP Mindanao gave their reviews of the book. In between, Teatro Humanidades interpreted Merlie’s poems in chant and dance.

Merlie Alunan usually comes across as a very serious figure, a bearing, I think, that’s borne from a long life as a teacher. But the Merlie Alunan we had that day was aglow with smiles, laughing at a reviewer’s clever turn of phrase, or tapping in rhythm and mouthing the words of her poems along with the Teatro actors.

While the program was short, but the book launch took longer to finish than we expected. We sold a fair number of books and the fans lined up to have them signed. Merlie chatted with each one, sometimes at length. When we finally wrapped up, it was close to six. And to think we had started at three!

We ended the day with a small fellowship dinner with the Davao Writers Guild. Merlie was much taken with Davao food, and also with the company. She asked for one of the tarpaulin posters to take with her as a souvenir, and we all signed it for remembrance.

Merlie gave me a very warm hug as I bade her goodbye at her hotel. She’d be staying at Davao a few days more, but now with her cousin in Calinan. It was around then that I realized:

“Hey, you’re a Davao writer now!”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said. We both laughed, but we knew it was true.

Merlie Alunan is now a Davao writer.

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