Archive for February, 2016

The Workshops of Filipino Screenwriter Ricky Lee

by on Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Ricky Lee in his library, where the workshops are held

Ricky Lee in his library, where the workshops are held

Ricky Lee has written over 150 produced screenplays—as well as short stories, novels and essays. He’s worked with famous directors and received numerous awards. While some Filipino writers write only in English and some in English and Tagalog or another Filipino language, Ricky Lee writes exclusively in Tagalog as a matter of principle. His subject matter tends to deal with the marginalized in society, social problems and the dark side of human nature. He’s been quoted as saying that writing can change the world. A friend of mine is among his many devoted former students and workshop participants, and he introduced us at the University of the Philippines after Ricky received an award from the College of Mass Communications.

As a former teacher who’d attended several inspired writing workshops, I knew what effect they could have on a person’s work and life. From Ricky’s workshop participants I learned about his emersion method, where he had them engage in totally new experiences. I suggested that he begin our interview by talking about his own background.

Ricky’s story

I grew up in a very small place in Bicol about eight hours from Manila. My mother died when I was five, and my father turned me over to my relatives, who adopted me. I started writing fiction when I was in my fourth year of high school. At sixteen I wrote my first short story and sent it to Manila, where it was published.

After some misunderstandings with my relatives, I ran away from home, so from the age of sixteen I survived alone in Manila. I was a working student—a waiter, an accounting clerk, a salesman and a tutor of English and math—who was always writing. There were short stories, and then I went into journalism. I studied English at the University of the Philippines while I was working first as a proofreader, then copyreader for a magazine and eventually a staff member.

While I was a student I got involved in the movement against the Marcos dictatorship. Martial law came when I was in my fourth year of college. I dropped out of school and went underground for three years, mostly writing. I never handled a gun. We were assuming different names and hiding most of the time. We lived in underground houses. The military raided my place, and I was arrested and put in prison for a year. That was 1974. At Christmas time they released fifty prisoners as Marcos’s “gift.” I got out and started looking for a job. That’s how I got into the movies. I worked in the movies and television for fifteen or twenty years. On the side I wrote fiction and a couple of plays.

In 1982 after I had done four or five scripts I started conducting free scriptwriting workshops. Many writers asked how I had the nerve to conduct workshops when I’d written only five or six scripts.

That’s a lot.

Yes, but some people believe you have to accumulate so much “knowledge” before you can transfer it to other people. [This is in the Asian tradition of the master’s “transmitting” to the students.] I thought that you should share while you’re learning.

Yeah. It’s more alive that way.        

It’s more dynamic: you learn, you share, you learn more, you share more. Rather pass dead knowledge from your head to other people. I never charged money. I’ve never stopped. Basically, it’s about opening your sensibility, your heart, your mind to all the options and the possibilities. Share all the techniques. Then the choice is up to you. You write stories with your unique voice. There’s no formula.

This room is where we do the workshops with twenty to thirty participants. I never thought of myself as a teacher. We’re sharing with each other all on the same level. Usually the workshop goes on for about twenty sessions, all day Sunday until five or six in the evening or later. During the week most of the time participants will be here in the house. They’ll sleep over. We’ll watch films until morning. We call them film orgies.

While a workshop is going on, the participants become part of my life. I spend most of my time with them because they’re usually fresh from high school or college. They don’t know anything about the world or about the movies. I take them to premier nights and shootings. So people say, “Be careful when you invite Ricky to a premier night. He’ll always bring his angels.” I’ll have ten, fifteen, twenty who are always with me. Invite me to parties, and they’ll be there.

That’s also how I conducted my classes at UP and at Ateneo University. I’d bring my students home, they’d sleep over, we’d watch films. They’d take books and CDs home with them. We’d go to shootings. They’d become my friends. Many of my former UP students are still my close, close friends.

Usually I say, “Inside the workshop space, pull everything you can from me, in much the same way that I’ll pull everything I can from you and you from each other. The main thing we’re doing is just being together.”

Are you reading and critiquing scripts?

Yes. We talk about techniques. They go through the entire process from concept to sequence outline, to the script, revising the script and rewriting scenes. We critique each others’ work. They learn how to “punch the bag”: you have this idea or this story, and you work it left, right, east, west, up, down until all the juices come out. Then they start revising. We do critiques, film viewings, lectures, discussions and exercises. And sometimes emersion trips. They choose a place like Ermita, Malate or Roxas Boulevard because of the bars or the prostitutes and the pimps—a very colorful place where they don’t usually go.

And they feel safe with the group.

They feel safe with the group, and they get to see. Each participant chooses a character to inhabit, then just goes with it. I don’t force them. They can just be there and observe the others. Beyond that, they could pretend to be hookers or go farther than that. Someone might work side-by-side with a sidewalk barbeque vendor. The more adventurous ones totally inhabit the character. When we arrive at the place, usually on Sunday evening around six, they’re in costume, maybe as homeless people on the street. I’ll have about five volunteers going with them just to make sure that nothing untoward happens to them.

Do you get much into the issue of privilege? Do you get your students to see social class from another perspective?

I suppose indirectly. Mostly what we see are the marginalized, and that’s most of the emersion we do: with those living in the streets, the prostitutes, the lesbians, people not in the middle of society. They’re not the privileged who have everything. Most of my own characters are also marginalized. I have some rich characters, but I wouldn’t know how to really get the character of a privileged person. I do agree that you have to see from whatever vantage point.

If you take a look at the racism issue in the US, you see people with no idea of what it’s like on the other side. None.

Here privilege can also be like a macho guy who believes that his wife is his property, that that’s what women are. He can rape his own daughter because he might as well be the one to devirginize her instead of somebody else. We have Filipinos in the barrios who think there’s nothing wrong with incest because their daughters are their property. The man, the male, feels entitled. I’ve written about that in many of my films. Or the privilege of feeling you’re “normal” if you’re straight, not sick like lesbians and the transgenders. That prejudice still exists although we’re taking some very progressive steps. The poor are still mistreated. Also, to a great extent Filipinos are still colonized. The tendency is to be more forgiving or more lenient towards the American than a Filipino because we will always look up to the white man. We’ve always been the poor little brother.

Is your idea to have students write more realistic characters? Or is it to give students a view of a social situation that they haven’t been in before?

Yes, yes, and more. Of course it’s a good thing to see, to observe everything, to become “the other.” I think it’s important for a writer to cross a threshold where there’s a sense of danger, where you don’t know what lies behind that door. You it, and then you don’t know if you’re facing just darkness or a monster. I think it’s important for a writer not to know everything, not to be sure about everything, not to have a safety net. Becoming someone else means crossing a threshold, losing control, not knowing how to be yourself. You’re disconnected.

So the writer comes in contact with his or her own fear and also with the darkness.

You can get in touch with your own darkness. You also have a chance to empty yourself. I think sometimes we’re too full of ourselves—our fears and our joys and everything else. By inhabiting another person, even for a few minutes, or maybe hours, you’re able to free yourself of all your baggage. It will come back, but at least for a length of time you’re completely lost. You’re completely…


You’re empty, so you’re able to see or to feel without rules telling you how you should feel, how you should be, who you are. You are able to be free by not knowing.

I notice a big change when people come back from the emersion trip. About one or two or three in the morning, we meet and start sharing. Each participant gives a monologue from the point-of-view of the chosen character. “I am a call boy, and ….” In the monologues they are able to articulate and systematize whatever they felt. So it does a lot. Maybe they’ve blocked their emotions, their instincts, their intuitions. Through this process some of the blinders get removed, and something inside gets unblocked because they feel looser or freer. Because they enjoy the whole experience, they don’t have their defenses up, they’re more off guard.

If I ask people to write a storyline to submit on Monday, and I tell them to make it beautiful, make it correct, do it well, they’ll have a hard time. But if I say, “Let’s play a game, just go there and come up with your story. It can be a mess, but let it come out. You can revise it later. Honesty is the only thing that matters.” Then they can write a story in twenty or thirty minutes, and when they read it in class it will be meaningful. And it will be very fluid. When you force them to write, sometimes the results are very choppy. The same thing happens on an emersion trip. Things get cohesive. They suddenly flow easily and seem to come from a continuous flow inside. Their monologues are more fluid.

I’ve noticed that, when a piece reaches a certain emotional point and I pour it all out for several hours, the emotion seems truer than if I try to do it in a more controlled manner.

Yes. The conscious mind is a liar. It keeps telling you what’s correct based on what it has seen or what it has read or what other people have said. But the subconscious mind is more honest. It usually doesn’t tell lies. So write from the subconscious, from inside, rather than from the head. Although that’s difficult because from the moment you sit down, it’s the conscious mind that’s operating. It takes a while before you can get inside to the subconscious, before the real you starts writing.

Doing the emersion trip in a way helps you get inside faster because it tears down the defenses. Once several participants said to each other, “Let’s not apply for a job at a gay bar or beg on the street. Let’s crash a Chinese debutante’s party.” So they did. They registered, took pictures of the debutante and mingled with the guests. That was their experience, and they were able to inhabit somebody else. It was as harmless as that.

One workshopper applied to be a dancer in a club. She passed the initial stage of the hiring process, but when the manager came back with a tiny bikini for her to wear she admitted she was just doing research. At least she was able to take some steps. The wife of a really famous filmmaker, when she was younger, inhabited a fortuneteller in Qiapo. People started coming up to her and asking her to tell their fortunes. She did for about thirty minutes to an hour, but then she told many of them what she was doing. Filipinos are really nice people—usually, not all the time. Luckily, these people didn’t resent it. I suppose because she also handled it well.

We also do a lot of exercises, sometimes in class, often on the first day. I say, “Write down the name of a person you can’t communicate with. Maybe your mother died before you were able to talk to her, or your father left and you never saw him again or your boyfriend jilted you on Facebook and you weren’t able to talk to him.”


Yes. They do that now. The first exercise is to write a letter to the person in class, uncensored. Nobody else will read it. As they write people start crying and so forth. It gets them to unblock. Afterwards it’s easier because the emotions from the first exercise get transferred to the next. They feel relieved, and they feel ready. The second part of the exercise is to assume the point-of-view of the other person. If your boyfriend jilted you, inhabit the character of the boyfriend, write as the boyfriend. They start writing, not logical writing but associative writing.

The pen doesn’t stop.

The pen doesn’t stop. The writing helps them understand because usually a person, even one who does bad things, believes he’s right—at least for the moment—and he’s doing the right thing. He justifies it to himself. So be the person who dropped you or the parent who died without saying goodbye. That exercise has helped them open up their sensitivity.

Writing is being open and opening your material, but sometimes you can’t be open unless you go into the dark place to something dangerous. You can make it go white and light, but first you have to go dangerous and dark. There’s that journey that you need to do in order to get on the safe and bright side.

In Korea I had a meditation teacher who used to say, “Embrace your dark side.” Become friends with all this anger and resentment and fear. Accept it.

Yes, because it’s part of you. You can’t keep denying the dark side. Embrace it. I say, “The coin always has two sides. It’s bright because it’s also dark. We can see the stars because the sky’s dark. You need both. The protagonist’s story can’t just proceed on a plateau. It dips and soars, dips and soars, and the emotional range is larger. It has to go down so it can go up. When it goes up it’s sweeter because it’s more fulfilling.

If you’re a writer and you’re able to articulate thoughts from the gut, not from the head, which are more difficult to articulate than the ones from the conscious mind, then you’re trying to articulate something that can’t be articulated, that’s unfathomable, from the darkness of the emotions. That’s what’s important.

My meditation teacher talked about breathing from the abdomen and feeling from there.

Yes. I believe that’s where the writing should come from, at least for me. It’s more honest, and it’s what we want to read. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of workshoppers and students over the years. Most of them aren’t working as writers, although many writers came from my workshops. Some are on the production side, or they’ve gone back to advertising or being housewives. Still, the workshops benefit everybody. I say, “You don’t have to be great writers when you come out of the workshop, but at least become better people. Hopefully by becoming a better person you also become a better writer.

Is that how writing changes the world?

Ha! I suppose, yeah. I always tell them that in a way we’re all broken and wounded and in need of another’s hand on our shoulders. The story gives you a shoulder to lean on for a while. It can be a hand that’s extended to others who are also broken. But first you have to have your eyes and your sensibilities so you can see what’s around you. You can’t write stories in order to blind people. You have to open their eyes, open up their consciousness. As far as changing the world goes, you have to see the darkness, the brokenness, the disconnection and the connection.

Readers write:

fabulous interview/write up/thank you.

I love his stories. I have his book, Si Tatang at ang mga Himala ng Ating Panahon. Wonderful interview!








Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 2

by on Saturday, February 6th, 2016

Christian and students

Christian and students

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market thirty-five years ago. We spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Part 1 of the interview dealt with teaching literature and the job market in Korean higher education. Part 2 deals with social issues in the classroom, specifically those that appear in his classroom in 2015 and mine at Dongguk University from 1989 to 2006.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

H. Christian Blood

My students seem to know all the names. At their hagwŏns [cram schools or for-profit “institutes”] they read summaries of Marx and other political philosophies. So they know the words, and they have the passing familiarity needed to pass a test, but they’ve never read the original works.

That was also true of the student activists in the late 80s until the mid-90s, when student activism went out of fashion. The students would believe in Marxism like a religion, as opposed to something that they had studied. It was all tied up with the campaign for Korean reunification.

None of my students would identify as Marxist. I think many of them are wealthy and very privileged, but it’s also a sign of the times. Marxism to them signals North Korea, which is often invoked as a reason not to do things. I put them in groups for writing class, which is pretty standard, and a student said to me, “You know collectivism failed in North Korea.”

They’ve still got ancient Asian collectivism in South Korea. It’s the roots of Confucianism.

I think my students were all born in the 90s. They were little when the currency crisis happened. They see themselves as wanting to start the next Google or Naver [a Korean search engine]. Or as undiscovered K-Pop stars.

When did you first come to Korea? How did it change over the time you were here?

In 1988, I taught in a hagwŏn for a year, and then I went to Dongguk and taught there until December of 2006. During that time I noticed a change in attitudes. When I first got to Dongguk it was not unusual for a male student, a first son, to tell me that the quality he was looking for first in a wife was that she would look after his parents. By the time I left nobody was saying that anymore. But expressed opinions and the behavior could have been different, and often were.

I wrote all my own textbooks. Generally I found that my students were quite receptive, but I had to be careful. I put together some reading and conversation stuff when I first started teaching there, stories and articles on different ethnicities, women’s rights and human rights. Issues like racism and sexism and homophobia. All of the settings were in the United States, but Korea might appear in the discussion questions. For example, I used some scenes from Philadelphia to get the students to talk about homosexuality. After I’d been at Dongguk for more than five years and had finished the composition textbooks, I started writing the second batch of conversation textbooks, which were based on a few basic principles of social science and interviews on living and working in Korea. I had a two-semester book for the majors and a two-semester book for the non-majors. I used them for ten years, revising during the vacations. If I’d started out from the beginning trying to do the same thing but not knowing much about Korean culture, I would have gotten myself into trouble. But I’d learned how to let the material do the persuading, step back and not argue with anyone. The material was not always flattering to Korea, but it rang true. So in the first week we could be talking about racism, prejudice, all that kind of stuff without people getting upset.

I think our situations are very similar except my students now have the internet and so they already know all that stuff. They’re aware of what’s going on. I was very surprised a few weeks ago when they brought up Caitlyn Jenner in class. They were already familiar with transgender issues and comfortable with discussing them. Now, this is a self-selecting group that’s going to take an upper-division course in Greek and Roman novels, not a reliable sample of Korean students, but in this discussion I had nothing to say. They said it. The other thing is my students are very interested in watching police violence in the United States. They are all fully following “Black Lives Matter.”

Well, that’s the old anti-Americanism in a new guise. In the old days some of my students were convinced that American whites were the most racist folks in the world, although that was not the way they were talking during the Los Angeles riots. Korean news coverage was very one-sided, so I brought in an article about how the attack on Korean stores in LA was really set off not by the Rodney King verdict, but by the verdict of Doo Soon-ja, the Korean shopkeeper who got off with only community service after shooting an unarmed teenager she mistakenly thought was going to steal a container of orange juice. They hadn’t heard of this case because the Korean media didn’t mention it. I always seemed to be trying to counter bias about one thing or another.

 The attacks on black citizens by the police probably remind your students of the military dictatorships in Korea.

Yes. The students all understood it from the dictatorships. I’ve been very impressed with how closely and critically they’ve been following police violence in the United States. I think that my students are able to quickly see problems in the US more easily than Americans can.

In some ways the Korean military dictatorships were similar to the anticommunism of my childhood. McCarthyism provided a good excuse for attacks on citizens, for rooting out anti-racism activists, for example. In South Korea it was the threat from the North. At the same time I’m watching the news and seeing many more parallels than I want to see in what’s going on in the United States and a police state.

Absolutely. It’s sad and scary. Was martial law still in place when you got here? When did that stop?

Probably after Chun Doo-hwan was defeated in the summer of 1987 and he had to make concessions to the citizens. There was no curfew when I arrived in September of 1988. Korea had to be “developed” and “democratic” in order to have the Olympic Games. So they had their first democratic election in December, 1987 and elected Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo-hwan’s buddy. Right after the Olympics the hearings started about government corruption and the massacre in Kwangju.

My students are very conversant in what’s happening in the United States, but none of them really know about martial law in Korea. The parents aren’t talking. None of my students likes President Park Geun-hye, and they’re all critical of her father. But then my classes attract students who want to talk about these things. What I see is that students perceive the military dictatorships to be further in the past than they really were.

They haven’t heard of the massacre in Kwangju?

They’ve heard about it, but it’s as if they think it happened in 1880, not 1980. This is just my impression. This generation is very invested in a globalized, first-world Korea.The post-Olympics Korea is the only one they know. I think they see the assassination of Park Chung-hee as much more decisive than it really was. They have a kind of an ambivalent view of Park. He was bad, a lot of people died, but he built a great country.

I read that a lot of Park Chung-hee’s popularity came after the fact, that there was considerable denial about the Park years. By contrast, the German generation I knew best, those people born shortly before or during World War II, were filled with anger and resentment about the previous generation. I often heard someone say, “I’m not German, I’m European.” More than a few interrogated their parents about what they were doing during the Hitler years.

Park Chun-hee was assassinated at the end of October 1979. Chun Doo-hwan seized power on December 12 of the same year. There was labor and student unrest of all kinds all over the country, and Chun declared martial law, then sent in the Special Forces, and later full military force, to put down peaceful demonstrations in Kwangju. With the knowledge of the US military. So, yes, there was a “Seoul Spring” after the assassination, but it was pretty short. Park Chun-hee was also very pro-Japanese. The “miracle on the Han River” was made with loans from the US and Japan.

I’ve been surprised at students’ attitudes about Japan. No way around it, I’m just always surprised. They’re very cosmopolitan, they want to talk about race and the problems of the militarization of the American police, but when Japan comes up, they think about Japan in a way I don’t fully grasp. Underwood has lots of problems if we try to present a balanced view of Japan. How did your students talk about it?

Well, the student radicals were often hostile both toward Japan and toward the US. The word “nom,” or bastard, was used only for the Japanese and the Americans—Ilbon-nom and Miguk-nom. The other students and the business people seemed to have mixed feelings. Their talk about Japan might be negative, but they might also be attracted to it. I know of a businessman who was sent to Japan for a year, and he had to pretend that putting up with the Japanese was a hardship, but he actually became a closet Japanophile. And I think that was true of a lot of people, an admiration-hate relationship with the Japanese, like you see with the popularity of the Miss Kitty stuff or with students who want to go to Japan and study Japanese but don’t talk about it very much.

My students also seem to overestimate Korea’s importance—but in a way I expect most people think of their own country (this is a hard for me to think through, since I grew up in Washington, DC, which is the center of a world system in an objective way). K-wave has made it very easy.

There’s a feeling that because everyone knows “Kangnam Style” people will be flooding into Korea to pursue a university education.

In some ways that thinking is the same as it used to be, very self-centered. You would hear tons of criticism of the United States. If you countered with one critical comment about Korea you had a big argument on your hands.

So in some ways it sounds like underneath not much has changed.

That I believe. You only have to scratch the surface lightly to get a very nationalist response. I regularly get in trouble for insulting Korea. I say, “Don’t worry. I criticize the United States ten times as much!” I definitely don’t adhere to propriety in the way my students expect.

Yeah, but that doesn’t mollify them. You still insulted Korea.

And I don’t even mean to! That’s the thing. But I don’t think the most decisive issue facing Korea right now is Dok-do, the Liancourt Rocks off the coast which are controlled by Korea but contested by Japan.

Last semester I taught an upper-division seminar on American feminism from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I did this because of student interest. A lot of the women in my classes would probably be taking women’s studies if they were at schools in the US, but we don’t have those. I focused on the 70s and 80s because I wanted to give them more depth and some of the long history of political activism. Also I wanted them to think about class more because my students are not—they’re happy to talk about gender relations, but they are hesitant to talk about class.

For obvious reasons.

So I didn’t want the discussion to be “plastic surgery, good or bad,” or “the objectification of women in K-pop, good or bad.” I wanted real discussion. So I spent a semester with eight women reading Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, mainly African-American women writers. We had a great time. I’ve never had so much fun in class. The students took over, and they ended up almost running it. Then we went to Korean materials, and we talked about the dictatorships, we talked about Korean women, and we talked about the role gender has played in building modern Korea. Without ever talking about plastic surgery.

The women decided to start a club that would work on women’s reproductive health, safety and sexual education because there isn’t a women’s center at Yonsei. They tried to charter it as a club to get sponsorship, and they basically told it was too hot to handle. So they went guerilla and did it on their own. It’s wonderful. I argued that their programs should be a little more conservative, maybe not start out focusing on sexual pleasure, but the woman who was in charge said, “Then you shouldn’t have had us do a critique of respectability politics.” I said “Touché.”

At the Yonsei campus they’ve done workshops for women on contraception, consent, rights of rape victims, masturbation and reproductive health. It is so exciting because my students don’t know about contraception. There’s no sex education in Korea, at least not for the segment of the population I meet. There’s none.

So the women who took my feminism class are doing this. There were condom demonstrations, and now there’s information on campus. If a woman needs an abortion, a morning-after pill, if she’s been raped or wants an IUD, she can find out where to look.

Abortion is both technically legal yet hard to get. I’ve been told that if a woman asks her doctor for birth control, the doctor can refuse, especially if she’s not married. I think it’s the influence of the Protestant churches here. What my students have told me is that if you’re not comfortable Googling in English and you’re doing a search in Korean in Naver, it’s hard to find unbiased information about the IUD. What comes up first is these hysterical pieces about how a woman used an IUD and now she’s infertile for life. My students are taking English resources and translating them. That makes me very happy. I had very little to do with it. I just arranged some institutional support and gave them some pointers for dealing with the administration. It’s great to see what they’ve been doing.

Actually for me teaching the chapters on women’s issues was the most rewarding—partly because I could speak as a former women’s rights activist. They read the chapter, and they saw their professor leading a contingent of women down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. We watched a movie called “How We Got the Vote.” When we started out most of the students didn’t realize that women’s rights were something that American women had to fight for. A lot of their opinions changed very quickly when they came to understand sexism not as a Korean issue but as a global issue.

Yeah. The point I try to make to my students is that the current situation in Korea is not inevitable. The country is this way for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not my role to try to change things in Korea, and it’s not my place. But as an instructor I can show them how things have changed in other countries. The class on women’s studies was the most rewarding class I’ve ever done. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aenied, I think are beautiful, but they don’t have the same progressive relevance.