Discovering the Secrets of Iloilo & UP Visayas: The 3rd SCBWI children’s book seminar in Iloilo

By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Photographs by Mark Taguiwalo

There could not have been a more perfect setting for the Children’s Book Seminar organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) in Iloilo late last year [on September 26, 2009]. Yes, the very same day that Metro Manila was battling the raging floodwaters, we were on another island, blissfully talking books and writing and imagining story scenarios. It did sound like we were in another realm, until text messages from Manila told many unfortunate and jarring tales.

The workshop participants with Beaulah Taguiwalo and the author (seated, 2nd and 3rd from left) with UP Visayas Chancellor’s Committee on Culture and the Arts headed by Prof. Vicente Tan on the extreme right.

SCBWI Regional Advisor, book designer and illustrator Beaulah Pedregosa Taguiwalo and I ran an 8-5 session for 33 teachers, cultural advocates, nurses, a businessman, a call center trainor, NGO staffers—all interested in writing or illustrating their first stories for children or promoting reading with the children they work with.

The SCBWI is a US-based international organization dedicated to serving the needs of children’s writers and illustrators and its fledgling Philippine chapter is headed by Taguiwalo and Nikki Garde Torres. It features visiting authors and illustrators from overseas and hosts regular monthly Book Talks and manuscript discussions for enthusiasts of children’s books in Makati.

This seminar was the third in a series of annual seminars in partnership with the UP Visayas Chancellor’s Committee on Culture and the Arts headed by Prof. Vicente (Vinnie) Tan. The previous ones were by Taguiwalo and by Karina Bolasco of Anvil Publishing.

The impressive columns in the lobby of the old Iloilo City Hall, a 1930s Juan Arellano building.

It was held in the UPV Art Gallery housed in a lovely, fabled 1930s building built by Juan Arellano. Bearing sculpted images by Riccardo Monti who was also responsible for the sculptures in the UST campus where he was a faculty member, the original structure served as the old Iloilo City Hall and was also a Japanese garrison from 1942-45. In 1947, it was turned over to become the UPV campus and was restored by the Philippine War Damage Commission in 1950. It bears a marker from the National Historical Institute which recognized its significance as a fine example of neo-classical architecture in 2008.

The art gallery that Vinnie curates used to be a courtroom of the Iloilo City Hall. Thus, the wooden floor is inclined to render more prominent the judge’s perch on the elevated platform at the end of the room. There is the original second floor that displays today the gallery’s permanent collection—a rich legacy of paintings donated by first Chancellor of UP Visayas, Dr. Dionisia Rola, now retired in Manila. That used to be the spectators’ gallery in the courtroom.

To make way for the seminar, an ongoing wood sculpture exhibit had to be pushed against the walls—adding so much ambience to the hall now with tables covered by ethnic colorful fabrics meant for patadyongs.

The touch of contemporiety and the lively group became especially welcome when Vinnie gently “warned” us about spirits lurking in the courtroom/gallery. When I sat on the wooden steps leading to the upper floor, he worried that I may be considered a trespasser by the male presence residing there. I sensed nothing except when I went to a particular corner in front. While the session was in progress, the staff smelled the unmistakable aroma of coffee and cinnamon—long before it was snack time. And did we notice the child’s fingerprints on a glass case, when no children were in the premises? All that is dismissed as common fare in this former queen city of the south and its numerous old homes and churches.

One is welcomed into the building by a cavernous foyer with its period feel. One cannot but be drawn to the tall ceiling and its intriguing mosaic. No, not man-made but a natural design and pattern left by the bat inhabitants who like spending their nights and doing their business there. Vinnie cannot tell how large the bat community is, since they only take over way past office hours, for the night shift.

Who needs to brainstorm and conjure writing ideas when the very setting offered so many possibilities?

The day’s topics included an introduction to notable children’s books—both Philippine and foreign publications, who’s who in children’s books, writing for children, and writing in their mother tongue. In between were three writing activities, browsing and reading time, manuscript critiquing. The complaint was understandable: never enough writing time. One participant Ramin Shabestari was driven to writing a 22-chapter novella in the course of his call center life and read an excerpt from his completed draft. That inspired the group to pursue their own writing ideas.

Vinnie Tan and Beaulah Taguiwalo

A particularly fascinating final activity was facilitated by Taguiwalo who has Iloilo roots and is passionate about promoting Kiniray-a, a language on the brink of extinction were it not for crusading efforts like hers and those of writer Leo Deriada, too. The assignment was simple and how the attendees took to it. They were to translate the children’s book of their choice originally written in English or in Filipino in their first language. All done with such mastery and ease. Another convincing proof of learning best in one’s mother tongue.

Taguiwalo’s special advocacy has led her to a family enterprise with husband Mario, Mother Tongue Publishing which has published an English story (Alice McLerran’s The Mountain That Loved a Bird) in six different Philippine languages.

Official Iloilo tour guide and cultural worker Joseph Albaña with SCBWI Assistant Regional Advisor Nikki Torres.

When the day was over, the talk turned to more Iloilo lore, both haunted and otherwise, but all fascinating, thanks to an Iloilo-born raconteur. Truth to tell, the best way to get to know Iloilo is through the colorful incessant stories of Joseph Albaña, cultural officer of the Australian Cultural Center in Manila in a previous existence till his hometown and its gracious lifestyle beckoned.

Today, he is a cultural worker and arts administrator but will drop everything to lead friends through a personalized tour of the city—from the bakery with old-fashioned panaderia recipes to the turn-of-the-century homes across the town plaza which continue to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. There were more homes and cathedrals to visit than a weekend trip could accommodate. It was heartbreaking to see the vestiges of an old home fallen into neglect and disrepair, even having to share garden space with a rice cake stall. And old stately homes just demolished because no one in the family cared enough and the lure of commerce was hard to resist.

Oh, what stories to write, what stories to tell.

The author is a member of the SCBWI and the Philippine Board on Books for Young People. She may be reached at nenisrc@gmail.com. For those interested in SCBWI membership and seminars, email Beaulah P. Taguiwalo (taguiwalo8888@yahoo.com) or Nikki G. Torres (nikkigtorres@yahoo.com).

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