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Into the SUNWW, the birthplace of brilliant Philippine writers

In the heart of Negros Oriental lies Silliman University, the home of Asia’s longest running creative writing workshop.

“Plenty of greenery and the sea can ease strong feelings after one’s work has been taken up and could simply provide a different atmosphere [compared] to a room or hall,” Dr. Dinah Roma, full professor of the Department of Literature, shares as she recalls one of her most memorable literary experiences back in 1988.

While her recount of a campus by the sea may sound like a fictitious tale of self-discovery, it actually tells of her immersion in Asia’s longest-running creative writing workshop: the Silliman University National Writers Workshop (SUNWW). Nestled in the heart of Dumaguete City, “[its] natural environment was very conducive to the kind of interaction that happens in a writing workshop,” Roma expounds.

Created by National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo and her husband Edilberto Tiempo in 1962, SUNWW welcomes literary fellows to Silliman University in Negros Oriental for a two-week workshop. With its 60th anniversary having been recently celebrated, the nerves and excitement still crackled through the participants knowing they were part of history. Fellow for drama and Department of Literature Vice Chair Anne Richie Balgos cites that even with her professional background, the first-day jitters never go away. She divulges, “‘Yung first day siguro nagkakahiyaan pa pero you get to create a chat group and get to know each other better even virtually lang.”

(Maybe during the first day, the ice still needed to be broken but…)

Meanwhile, poetry fellow Andrei Fuentebella (II, ISC) was initially bolstered in knowing they were one of the youngest fellows of their SUNWW batch. “However, as the workshop progressed, I realized that I had so much work to do,“ they admit.

Thus, with little preamble, the fellows dove headfirst into SUNWW and came out the other side reconstructed, renewed, and transformed.

Into the thick of it

Undeterred by the workshop’s online setup, the SUNWW was dedicated to giving this year’s fellows a just-as-immersive experience as when it began.

Driven by the workshop’s prestige and competitiveness, many fellows join SUNWW with a goal in mind. Balgos reveals, “Nag-workshop hopping ako [this year],” determined to revise her plays. While others may be apprehensive about receiving criticism, she truly enjoyed hearing what others had to say about her work, “Sometimes the comments are just [a] gold mine…na ‘onga ‘no, ganon nalang pala para mas maganda’.”

(“Oh right, it would be better if it was like this.”)

But change seldom comes overnight. Raring to learn new techniques and to enhance their writing style, Fuentebella felt antsy at the rate they were improving in the workshop. After having their poems workshopped right out of the gate, they received words of wisdom from one of SUNWW’s resident panelists, poet, and novelist Dr. Cesar Ruiz Aquino. They impart, “He believed that my work could be better than it already was and how revisions of poems can span decades and still be far from finished.”

From being a participant to becoming the SUNWW’s current Director-in-Residence, Roma notes that at the core of improvement, the workshop instills that writing is a lifelong learning process. She adds, “[Writers] need to learn and [to] discover new things about writing. This way they can build up a critical vocabulary, ethos that can allow them to decide for themselves what works and what does not.” Through this, SUNWW passes down years of wisdom through generations to foster the creative talent in Filipino writers.

Boundless bonds

But the workshop is not an extensive boot camp. Harkening back to her own experiences, Roma shares, “At the heart of the workshop is a willingness to learn from others who have been in the field much earlier than you and have something worthwhile to share.” It’s her motto that inspired this year’s fellows to equally view the workshop as an epiphanic venture.

Balgos was grateful when literary giants were helping her improve her work. “Listening to Dr. Roma [and discussing] works or theories in the workshop…gave me a feeling of pride,” she claims. “‘Yung feeling ng pride na kasama ko [siya] sa Literature department.” Similarly, Fuentebella was honored to see the SUNWW as a creative space for ideas to thrive, “It humbled me greatly—to have shared this space with such gifted writers, all of whom were much more experienced and patient in the craft than I was.”

(The feeling of having a sense of pride that I’m with her in the Literature department.)

It was this space that helped elevate each of Baglos’ and Fuentebella’s submissions in the workshop. The poetry fellow’s submissions were Genesis 2:15 and María Clara’s Dream Journey into the Gumiho’s Land, with the latter being their favorite. “I was in awe of how critical the readings of the poem were,” they attest, commending the former poem’s panelists that included Roma herself. “From the world-building to the symbolisms of each character, each imagery, and each emotion brought to life by the text,” expresses Fuentebella.

As for Balgos, her play—Matsinnun—touched upon the weaving practices of the Gaddang people. It was serendipitous for Balgos to learn that Tiempo also had Gaddang roots, so she thought of dedicating Matsinnun to the National Artist for Literature for her efforts in making the workshop possible: a “convergence of the stars”, as she describes.

To her surprise, it was live read by the Youth Advocates for Theater Arts during her panel. “Naiyak ako don,” she reminisces. “I didn’t expect na the committee would devote so much time making sure that a wannabe dramatist like me, coming up with a rough draft, would [be] really [taken] seriously and [would] come up with a very impressive production of [my play].”

(I cried at that moment.)

On literary excellence and beyond

Looking back on the 60th iteration of the workshop, all three found a bliss in being part of this historic moment. But beyond that, Balgos aptly describes the workshop as something more than just a mere seminar—“it’s like a growing family,” as she puts it. “Parang ‘yung Bonsai [ni Edith Tiempo]; ‘yung the love for each other in the family and love for whatever keeps the family going will be able to sustain,” she furthers. Roma agrees, attesting, “If there’s any great impact the workshop had on my writing, it would be the sense of a writing community.”

(It’s just like Edith Tiempo’s Bonsai.)

For Fuentebella, they praise the workshop’s “tough” and “rigorous” nature, “[as] the most difficult hurdles allow us to undergo the greatest changes.” The workshop serves as a stepping stone for their literary career; and for those who plan on doing the same, they remind, “Come into the workshop knowing that there is much to learn about creative writing and about yourself.” What’s important is that one’s heart and mind are kept open for change.

And as the sun sets on SUNWW’s 60th anniversary, Roma is still excited to see where the workshop will go, “The mere fact that the workshop has reached its 60th year says a lot about its value in the Philippine writing community.”  She hopes for a face-to-face return so the next generation of writers could live through what she experienced. “I believe that much of [SUNWW] is a personal struggle [or] journey. [Being] given three weeks…to focus on something you love doing and gaining friends along the way was an invaluable experience,” the Director-in-Residence ends.

For many aspiring writers, literature plays a vital role in their lives. It bridges the gap between the fantastic and the real, creating a complex amalgamation of stories, insights, and perspectives. SUNWW’s legacy of being the birthplace of these ideas will continue to thrive as its status as a prestigious workshop will live on even after another six decades.

By Clarisse Bernal

By Magz Chin

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