Merlie Alunan's life before and after Yolanda.
MA: Edith did not have women friends of her own age. She kept to her house most of the time, among her trees, the lily pond, the brilliant kois, and among her books. There was a time she grew violets, tiny delicate plants that needed careful calibration of light and water and watchful care. She did not like socializing too much and attended parties reluctantly. But she enjoyed long quiet conversations. About art, about life. At the time she was deep into yoga. She felt she needed it for that phase of her life, a hunger for meditation and quietness. I was going through my own paces/phases and she was the strongest maternal figure close to me, closer than my own mother whom I felt I had to protect from my demons. Edith, it seemed to me, can look those demons in the eyes and tame them. I was wrong about my mother, of course. Like Edith, she knew the darkness just as well and had dealt with them for her own self as well as for her husband and children. Most women are like Edith and my mother, I would find out later. Whatever I had to do later in this phase of my life I learned while sitting at her feet, listening to her reminisce about everything, about anything. One time we were in one of those conversations and a leaf fell between us. She looked at me and exclaimed, "See, nature agrees!" So I, too, learned to look for signs, and find my strength as she had taught me how: when someone you love goes away, give your fear to a tree, to a living thing you love, like a flower, a pet. If all goes well, the flower, the tree, the pet will live, but if the beloved had been in any danger, the living thing will pay the ransom for that human life.
Doc Ed, on the other hand, gave us faith in our capacity to excel. He wasn't given to long conversations, he preferred to go off into the garden and break ground for his beloved grapevines and his orchard. The chico in his garden were big, smooth-skinned and luscious. We would go around his yard and pick them up from the ground before the bats got to them. Sometimes some of them were half-eaten but if you get to them early enough they would still be good after cutting off the portions that bat teeth had gotten into. He liked to go on long walks in the afternoon, covering the beach from Piapi all the way to Bantayan. We were his "kids," that was how he fondly addressed us outside the classroom.
VN: What did you learn from organizing the Silliman University Writers Workshop?
MA: I got to meet the big writers of the country as human beings. I was organizing the workshop at the time when we were on a shoestring budget. Sometimes Edith had to go around asking for donations from supporters in the community. I was working for it at the time when the University was gearing up to finally get it out of its system. The writers were not welcome in the dorms because generations of writing fellows tended to be very inventive about evading the curfew, no-liquor, no-cigarettes rules. It was sitting in those workshops that gave me the skill to run other workshops much later. Edith and Ed Tiempo were exacting about art, Ed in his gruff way, and Edith in her gentle and subtle way.
VN: How would you differentiate the summer workshop from the semestral version?
MA: We had a windfall from the Henry Luce Foundation, it seemed to me, a fund procured by Dr. Pedro Flores from the Luce Foundation. We were supposed to spend it in two years, which means four semestral workshops and two summer workshops. We simply let the semestral fellows take courses from the English Department offerings and a three-unit course in Creative Writing. You went through the semestral workshop. But that was only for two years. We soon ran through the funds, and the Workshop had to settle back into the annual summer affair.
VN: Should the latter be revived? What did you learn from it?
MA: You should be the one to decide on that. It's expensive to run, although no doubt it would give young writers a whole semester to think, read, talk literature or to pursue a writing project. On the other hand, one semester is too long for anyone to get away from other responsibilities, like a job or family or business. We were able to run it because there was an English Department to support the program. If the writing program existed by itself, we would have to run other activities to make the experience worthwhile. We need an enormous amount of funds to operate a program like that. But Silliman has facilities for a residency program. A semestral workshop would almost be like a residency. The resident fellow could run lectures for the English Department then, a good leavening for the campus.
Merlie Alunan (left) standing beside Vim Nadera and the rest of 28th Silliman University National Writers Workshop fellows and panelists like National Artist Edith Tiempo and Marjorie Evas