Photo by Debbie Carlos
While I was taking a bath in 1997, an idea came to me for something that would change the world. It didn’t, of course, unlike ideas that emerged from more momentous baths throughout history, but it did make enough of a dent in the very small, easily dented topsoil of the Philippine literary scene to be remembered over fifteen years later. It changed me, though, as well as the lives of a small group of writers and artists who shared in that bravado charge against posterity.
It was a literary journal that would eventually be named Pen & Ink, and the aim was to live forever: to produce something that would go on and on, long after us; when we started we did not envision an end to our endeavor. In opposition to the transience of the newspapers and magazines in which some of us were employed at the time, one of the basic tenets of the journal was that we would write with a view to being read many years down the line. Like any effort at immortality, such as alchemy or stem cell research, the way we attempted to write for the ages is, looking back at it now, so much a product of its time.
It was also a product of a certain time in our lives. The principal protagonists in this story are myself, my then-girlfriend Marianne Carandang, Manolo Quezon, JV Rufino, his cousin Jon-Jon Rufino, Ubaldo Stecconi, Kristine Fonacier, and Lita Puyat. We all wanted to do different things: ranging from Vanity Fair to a scholarly journal to Foreign Affairs to Aperture. We argued about everything: Long heated discussions were held about the correct italicization of The Manila Times, tantrums thrown about the correct shade of black in the printing. Apart from Ubaldo and Lita, who were well into their decrepitude from our point of view in our early twenties (they were both 34 when we started), we were young, full of hubris, and, most importantly, willing to work for free.
The narrative arc from our beginnings courtesy of a cheque for P100,000 from Jaime Zobel de Ayala and a promise of support from Antonio Samson of PLDT through eight issues (the eighth never saw print, so if you have Books 1–7 your set is complete) to our eventual disbanding is one that deserves a much longer tale than this. It’s a story of coming together, falling out, and coming out; so much so that it was sometimes referred to as “Pen and Pink” because by the time we closed shop more than half of the editorial team had come out as gay or bisexual. We learned many things: how to incorporate a business, the politics of the literary world, the back-end of the bookstore and magazine distribution trade, a lot about fonts and kernings and ligatures, and that ultimately, no one was willing to pay for literature at its selling price, even if it was subsidized by government and corporate sponsorships.
The story of the publication is actually a short one and a dull one. It’s the story of the people who came together and rallied under an impossibly idealistic standard that is worth recounting. The two years we spent together were formative for all of us because we held nothing back and thrust the full force of all the resources at our disposal, from labor and family money to our ideals and aspirations and social networks. I still believe that this is the only way to do things, and to hold back and compartmentalize or keep some cards close to your chest is dilettantism and you are cheating the endeavor and yourself. There are certain things you can only do in your twenties, when you can operate on very little sleep and out of your parents’ study. It was failure in that we failed to live forever. It was a success in that a bunch of undisciplined, egotistic, querulous, cantankerous, self-involved young brats became more than the sum of our selves, and produced something that we were intensely proud of. Almost all of us are still writing or publishing in some form or another. Most have remained friends, although, despite much nocturnal activity after presswork, none of us ended up with one another.
When we gained traction after the first issue we began to receive invitation and offers of friendship and advice from some older writers. We owe as much to them as to Mr. Zobel and Mr. Samson; what these writers gave us was start-up capital for the mind and spirit. Aside from advice, what we received from them was the belief that what we were doing was worth pursuing and that if we didn’t do it we would be denying a mandate that we had to carry out. For better or worse, The Manila Review, as different as it seems from Pen & Ink in terms of format, political leanings, and intellectual direction, wears that mantle now, just as Greg Brillantes’s review of the same name did before us, and F. Sionil Jose’s Solidarity did before them, and the publications of the Ravens before them. A few tattered copies will remain as proof of one’s existence, a footnote or two in the chronicles of literary history, but the friendships and intellectual stimulus of reading and writing each others’ work, learning from one’s elders and discovering emerging writers is an experience that will define one’s role in the world of words and those who love words: not because of one’s contribution to it, but because of how it will shape one and one’s friendships for as long as one lives. And that is as close to forever as the legacy of a publication can get.