The Best (and Worst) Literary Works by Ateneo de Davao Writers of School Year 2011-2012: Short StoriesPosted: September 6, 2012
Last week I made a selection of the best (and worst) poetry produced by writers from the Ateneo de Davao for the school year 2011-2012. The selection has revealed that the overall situation of poetry in the AdDU has been dismal, with much of the wannabe poets not even having the faintest idea of what good poetry is. In spite this, there are still jewels, produced mainly by the school’s talented alumni.
This week I make another selection, this time focusing on the fiction produced by the school. Once again, I do this with the intention of contributing to the betterment of Ateneo de Davao literature, hoping that the criticism I provide will ultimately help aspiring writers to improve their skill, keeping in mind past writers’ achievements and avoiding past writers’ mistakes.
Like last week, my sources for this week’s selection are the two main venues for publication offered to the Ateneo de Davao community: the Banaag Diwa, literary folio of the student publication Atenews; and the Dagmay, literary journal of the Davao Writers Guild. I will continue to exclude established writers (ergo, writers who have either one National literary contests, have had books published, or both), for if I were to include them Macario Tiu’s “Black Pearl” would automatically get first place while Dominique Cimafranca’s whole collection of short stories (“An Unusual Treatment,” which I highly recommend!) and Aida Rivera-Ford’s latest works would dominate the roll of honor. I also exclude anything I have written for the whole year (I had a short story come out in the Banaag Diwa), as doing so would be an act of atrocious vanity.
The Good Short Story
Unlike poetry, whose standards have been thoroughly codified in the Ateneo de Davao repertoire, the qualities of a good short story are varied. Jose Garcia Villa himself acknowledged this, pointing out that this arises from the fact that form will be what substance demands it to be. We can nevertheless echo Villa’s insistence that the form of a short story must be in accordance to its substance: how it is told must complement the slice of life’s vastness it is trying to say.
And we once again use that term, “the slice of life’s vastness,” for like poetry, we must say that good fiction offers a glimpse into the richness of reality. But here we will veer away a bit from Villa, who insists on the importance of internal reality. The pantheon of Ateneo de Davao short stories is filled with breathtaking stories whose characters are quite flat, but the short stories are breathtaking nevertheless. And so when we say that a short story ought to offer us a slice of the vastness of reality, we mean both the vastness of the world around us and the vastness of the world within the human being.
Related to this, Don Pagusara (in his lessons, I do not know if other scholars made a similar distinction) made a distinction between the Aristotelian and the Chekhovian short story. To put it simply, the former is plot driven and more or less follows Aristotle’s plot structure, while the latter is character driven, centered in realizations, revelations and epiphanies, following the short story standards of Anton Chekhov. We may somehow situate this in our distinction of external and internal reality: Aristotelian stories show characters braving external situations, performing external actions, while Chekhovian stories chronicle internal conundrums, culminating in internal transformations. Our approximation would be inaccurate, though, as Aristotelian stories may also involve character transformations, and Chekhovian stories may also involve the performance of external action. What we nevertheless seek to insist here is the value of a plot driven story: it offers us a glimpse into the complex possibilities of external reality.
An excellent example of a plot driven story is Dom Cimafranca’s Facester. The story begins with a spectacle of a premise (let us here momentarily digress and label this as another good quality for short stories: a spectacle for a premise), but it successfully goes beyond that and provides us a sequence of events all quite realistic but nonetheless breathtaking. This fantastic story from another world reveals to us the dynamism of our own world, because both worlds ultimately operate by the rules of the same reality.
I only foreground the plot driven story here because critics such as Villa have generally given it a negative image. While I do agree that formulaic plot driven stories are things that ought to be murdered, genuinely original specimens are nevertheless to be treasured, and plot in itself ought not to be discarded as a means of revealing “breathlessness.”
But the Ateneo de Davao has a spectacular rostrum of character driven short stories too. Just an example would be “For Death is Dead in December,” by perhaps the greatest writer the university has ever produced, Leoncio Deriada. This story successfully chronicles two of its main character’s internal struggles, and his coming to terms with one struggle (his indefinable unease with his stepfather) leads to his coming to terms with the other (his heartbrokenness).
But I say that the short story reaches its zenith when it is able to reveal richness of both plot and character in a single organic story, as is the case with Macario Tiu’s “Tsuru.” Like “Facester,” it begins with a spectacular premise, but it continues on in an action-driven manner, culminating in catharsis. In the process, we see moments of character transformation, and the cathartic ending, the culmination of the defamilarization of the WWII Japanese soldier, ends up transforming the reader!
It nevertheless remains a challenge to define what a good short story is, for short story writers are constantly redefining the standards, presenting us with even more new poetics. We can thus simply say that the good short story, beginning with a spectacle for a premise, reveals in functional form a complete slice of the vastness of external or internal reality.
We still have to point out though some basics in the short story. The story must work by its own internal logic, achieve verisimilitude where it needs to, make use of correct language, and have the sensitivity to the nuance of words. Some short stories stand out for the precision of their terminology, the tool by which it wrangles the little details all together to present the complex reality of the story. While poetry has solidity of specification, prose has terminological precision. And yet this is not to say the short story cannot be poetic in its language, for poetic language is also a plus in good fiction. Elegant variation, where needed, also ought to be considered.
The general diagnosis
All that being said, we can thus say that the quality of fiction produced by Ateneo de Davao writers has generally deteriorated. Gone are the days of Deriada, Rivera-Ford and Tiu. But there nevertheless remains hope, for the short story situation in the university is still quite good, much better than the poetry situation in fact. In general Ateneo de Davao writers are better fictionists than poets. I hypothesize that this is largely thanks to the fact that fiction, whether in written form or otherwise, is much more accessible to the students. Whereas poetry has always required some degree of training to read, fiction is readily accessible. If not an avid reader, the AdDU student at least watches television or streams anime on the internet, and thus still gets access to fiction. The situation is so good, in fact, that most of the published stories for this year have either been very good or have potential.
There is in fact a misguided zeitgeist of sorts. Sir Dom Cimafranca wrote some time ago about the “curse of fan fiction,” describing the trend among aspiring young writers to readily take already preexisting characters from popular works of fiction and making their own works out of them. Thankfully (or rather miraculously) none of that came out in this year’s publications.
There is also a continued preoccupation for romantic love (this is overwhelmingly truer in poetry, I just forgot to state so). This is, of course, understandable, as most of these writers are in that age when the door to heaven is opened with a kiss. It is simply important to point this out, both to alert readers interested in that type of fiction, and to mention that the good short story doesn’t necessarily have to be about love (as demonstrated in one of the selected good short stories).
The AdDU writer has also been very sensitive to spectacle and ingenious with plot. In the two best short stories for the year, one event leads to another, culminating in a transformation within the character. In the short stories with potential, most are plot driven, and with a bit of tweaking the story will be interesting.
But there are surprisingly also stories that dedicate themselves to character development, and with a bit of help these stories can be excellent modern short stories.
Works this year tend to be weak in terminological precision, and in general have a problem with verisimilitude in dialogue, giving characters a rather “written” way of speaking. These are minor problems of course, and if the writers will only attend writers workshops, and read more, they can be easily improved.
The selections for this year are:
“Sa Kalsada” by Paul Randy Gumanao, Dagmay/Banaag Diwa
“The Last Will” by Hannah Rae Villarba, Dagmay
After topping my selection of poetry, Paul Gumanao again tops my short story selection, and he is easily the finest writer from the Ateneo de Davao these days. “Sa Kalsada” begins with a touching but socially conscious expression of fondness by older brother from an economically challenged family to his younger sister. The older brother’s image is quickly defamiliarized back into humanity as we realize kuya Lucas happens to have a girlfriend, a fact which becomes the springboard to the story’s main action. We then see an exemplary execution of objective correlative, as the reader is compelled to piece together the factors leading to Lucas’ reaction to what the Spiders do to his sister. The story culminates to an image that betrays both the author’s penchant for striking image and his sympathy for activism, as Lucas assumes the innocence of activism to evade the law. This image ultimately foregrounds for us the image of the militant activist. The story ends quite apply in tantalizing uncertainty. There is little wonder this story won second place in the year’s Apoyon prize for Bisaya fiction.
Hannah Villarba’s Last Will quickly catches my attention for its deft employment of pun, as the word “will” is played around throughout the story. This is one of the few stories this year that do not deal with romance, focusing instead on family bonds. There is also a successful handling of the first person point of view, as it ably reveals the hurt and understandably rude character of the narrator. Urban liberal-rural conservative tensions are also subtly brewing in the subtext. The reversal of the deceased father’s character, revealed by the letter, is loyal to traditional Aristotelian plot convention and is at this literary episteme rather predictable, but in itself was successfully pulled off. This story is easily the best written in English for the year.
Stories with Potential
The vast majority of stories published for the year are not quite successful yet (although some are already very close), but have so much potential it would be an utter waste to brush them off. With all the best intentions therefore, I mention them here to point out their strengths and suggest improvements. The stories with potential are as follows:
“The Night Visitor” by Jake Tadla
“White Roses” by Princess Martin
“Purple Coffee” by Princess Martin
“Flight of the Flightless” by Ralph Oja B. Bagay
“The Jeepney Ride” by J.A. Dubouzet
On top of this list is Jake Tadla’s “The Night Visitor,” a story which is already successful to some extent. It is a modern take on the traditional Filipino legend of the bangungot, a demon who sits on a sleeping person’s stomach and causes nightmares. Save for some minor areas of improvement in language (which can easily be corrected), the story is already neatly executed. But it lacks substance. The reader is not able to derive anything significant from the story as is. Perhaps, it is important to mention what sir Dom Cimafranca, citing G.K. Chesterton, says about works of fantasy. He says the great human value of works on the other end of the reality spectrum (SpecFic, fantasy, horror) is to reveal realities we take for granted by foregrounding them against the fantastic. It reminds us, by putting us in unreal situations, what it means to be real. If the author can find a great reality to share in this story, then it will be a great piece of literature.
There is little doubt that this year is a productive year for Princess Martin, who has had three short stories published in the Dagmay. Her three works are charming tales of hope in romantic love. Best and most prototypical among the three works is “White Roses,” beginning in medias res, flashbacking to a romantic past intervened by unfortunate circumstances leading up to the low point present, with a sudden twist that concludes in a happy ending. Almost the same structure is applied in “Purple Coffee” and “Bird Bath” with slight variations. Personally, I have no problem with this formulaic-ness (although the author ought to be sensitive as my preferences aren’t always mainstream). My problem with the pieces in general is the tendency to reveal ideology too much. At some points (most particularly in “Bird Bath” ) the story’s theme is expressly revealed in dialogue, and it becomes obvious that the author is preaching it. While there is nothing inherently wrong with stating theme in dialogue, it becomes inartistic if the theme’s weight compromises the verisimilitude of the dialogue, and this is what happens in the piece. What makes Paz Marquez Benitez’ “Dead Stars” a successful story is its able execution of dialogue, and I enjoin miss Martin to take a leaf from Marquez Benitez’ book and bring the desired improvement into her otherwise lovely stories.
The piece which excites me the most for this year is Ralph Bagay’s “Flight of the Flightless.” The story lacks solid characterization, does not successfully convey a piece of reality’s vastness, and the setting and internal logic of the story is poorly established, but it has an exciting tendency to veer towards terminological precision, and it is centered on a naturally intriguing spectacle: the phoenix. With the richness of material the author will not have a hard time thinking of a human theme to convey, and the details of characterization, setting and logic are merely technical difficulties and are thus easy to resolve. If this story is improved, I will be tempted to compare it to Leoncio Deriada’s “Night Mares!”
J. Dubouzet’s “The Jeepney Ride” is a conundrum of sorts for me. It is either saying something too obscured by its form or it isn’t saying anything. It nevertheless belongs to this category because it involves a fantastic but unfortunately unexplored spectacle. There is also a need to improve verisimilitude, as the expressions of astonishment of the characters do not feel realistic. If the author could correct this, and if he could find something significant to say in a clean but subtle manner, this story can be something interesting.
A Bad Example
When I was beginning this selection I was so optimistic that I originally thought I would not have to point out bad examples. But one particular story was so bad that it just begged to be pointed out. The worst story of the year is “The place where the sun is silent” by Jancarlo Quibod, which came out in the Banaag Diwa. The piece is bereft of any coherent plot, and it is guilty with what my Silliman co-fellow Mike Gomez called “a crippling pretentiousness.” The piece is virtually paralyzed with pretentiousness. I could not restrain myself from laughing while I read the piece, and only by sheer patience was I able to finish it. The story is riddled with nonsensical phrases like “soothsaying chrysanthemums,” “crystal believers” and “scourging imaginarium,” and possibly unintentional neologisms like “hollowfication” (which instantly tempted me to quote Krip Yuzon’s poem “Rejection.”) The violation of verisimilitude is almost criminal, as for instance we get one character saying “there is no escape to the mutations of ghastly proportions and only in death shall I free myself to the poisonous machinations of a love lost to crystal believers.” I will dismiss any possibility that this story is something like Joyce’ “Finnegans Wake,” as that piece took years of labour by an accomplished man of art. But Occam’s Razor, while dismissing the possibility of a modernist opus, offers instead the explanation that the author simply is being in love with “fancy words” (words that do not appear in ordinary usage), a penchant which, without its needed fascination with meaning, only produces, well, a crippling pretentiousness. This pretentiousness is sadly a linguistic disease that riddles many a pseudo-intellectual in the Ateneo de Davao today, where we get student “leaders” impressing witless constituents by insisting on using these “fancy words” when they really mean nothing of significance.
I therefore enjoin any future member of the Ateneo de Davao community who will endeavor to write to first exorcise this pretentiousness from him/herself, understand how proper terminological precision works, and make sure language is used with meaning as the predominant motivation and not the (inevitably incorrect) display of vocabulary. “Sa Kalsada” and “The Last Will” use simple, even colloquial language, but they are much more eloquent than the pretentious “The place where the sun is silent.”