The rationale of a literary biography/memoir

Why am I in this genre?

It all started out serendipitously when Professor Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo assigned our CNF class to reflect on as part of our series of referential readings Dianne Middlebrook’s essay The Role of the Narrator in Literary Biography (2006).

Then in my personal reflection, I gloriously chanced upon an epiphany: a writing strategy to pay homage to a beloved writing mentor for without him, I wouldn’t have ventured into becoming a writer myself.

I then fantasized upon the idea and soon began venturing on writing about this dear writer- friend, the late Bienvenido M. Noriega, Jr.

But I didn’t intend it to be an accompanying memoir. It just happened that it came out as such.

Maybe because I couldn’t erase myself in the picture as I wrote about him. Yet, many a times, I would question him as if he were alive.

Am I doing the right thing?

Then to my mind, he would answer, ‘go ahead, I prayed hard to make you well, right? Do what you have to do.’

On the other hand, am I just being presumptuous, having the sheer audacity to put words in his mouth only to pacify me that I’m so far doing the right thing? And even as I write this sentence, I am still asking the same question, asking him if it’s alright to write about him, his works, his life, and pretty much so his life with me, not only in the first person but also as another character to grapple with.

I likewise likened this biography-memoir as an elegy of sorts, to this humanist writer, a playwright to reckon with, a man whom without his guidance, I wouldn’t have written, lived and loved with sublime meaning this far.

In her essay, Middlebrook discusses the imperative of the Narrative (in literary biography) as possessing “elements of creativity that distinguish literary biography as a literary genre in its own right – different from history, different from fiction, but one that requires the skills both of the researcher and of the artist to reach its full potential” (1) .  She further argues that “it requires the invention of a narrator who serves as a contemporary guide to the materials of the book, telling the life as a story. This narrator may be presented in the first person, or to be entirely ‘transparent’; but either way, the narrator is a fully literary creation designed as a channel of subjectivity through which the historical materials of the biography are delivered to readers” (5).

Middlebrook was able to draw these observations from the literary biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft in, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon; William Shakespeare in Will of the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt; Robert Lowell in Robert Lowell, A Biography by Ian Hamilton; and Anton Chekhov in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm.

The writing of literary biography is likewise a process of subjectivity, or in her words, the “subjectivity of the transparent narrator in a biography which is expressed in other ways than being associated with a speaker in the first person. Moreover, the subjectivity or point of view of that narrator is always contemporary, whether or not the subject of the book is contemporary, because the story of a life is always addressed to an audience in the present” (2).

According to Middlebrook, there are two types of narrators in literary biography: the first person and transparent. They are characterized as “full literary creations that were designed as a channel of activity through which the historical materials of the biography are delivered to readers.” The narrators are what she calls, “the equivalent of literary characters installed in a biography as its central intelligence” (9).

In other words, what do narrators do?

“The purpose of a literary biography, is to explain the internal and external influences on a writer’s work; the biography must supply a convincing account of the workings of the writer’s character, and it must also supply a lively evocation of the writer’s world” (9).

Furthermore, the literary biographer is allowed a certain rein to ‘invent’ or ‘speculate’ factual truths or unknown details of the subject’s life in order to give narrative ‘Life’ to the biography.

According to Michael Benton in his chapter on Life [Hi] Stories: Telling Tales culled from his book, Literary Biography: An Introduction (2009),

the biographer has to work with data from the one and create a ‘Life’ with the other. Narrative theory is responsive to this hybridity. It problematizes the old question,’ How much should the biographer tell?’ and updates it to ‘What sort of truth is there to tell?’ by opening up matters of fictional and factual truth that lie in the gaps between documented events and their representations in words. Richard Holmes in an acutely titled essay, ‘Inventing the Truth,’ shows how fundamental these issues are. They go deeper than the practical problems of mere authenticity, or the ethical questions of the subject’s right to privacy. They blur the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ implying that authenticity itself is an illusion (30).

But  then, to lessen the ‘speculation’ and ‘invention’ of truth, so to speak, I chose, in my writing project, a subject who is second skin, someone whom I have lived with for a decade, and strategize the inclusion of the ” I” persona in the narrative, both as character and narrator, towards its consequent inevitability of writing my memoir as well.

And now, to the subject of the memoir, what is it to me?

According to Pantoja-Hidalgo in her work Creative Nonfiction: A Manual (2003): “autobiography is the story of a life and memoir is the story of a portion of a life. Both are written by the subject himself”(147).

In my memoir, this written portion of my life together with my afterthoughts and musings on my take on Noriega is tucked and interwoven within the portion of his life when we were together – as friends, pet peeves, partners, and colleagues in the theatre,  and as co-founders, producers, managers and resident -artists of our still existing theatre group, Dramatis Personae, between the summer of 1984 and 14 September 1994, the exact date of his death.

And yet, these memoirs are not at all any less powerful. Larson defends it and argues further that the absence of the tyranny of time gives the piece a kind of freedom. Such memoirs demand attention, forcing the memoirist to contend with finding a place for all things to make sense.

Allow me to cite this tract from my CNF project as an example of what Larson refers to as sudden memoir.

“Consciousness is consciousness of something other than consciousness itself,” says Descartes. Yet even in death, and beyond, there is consciousness. Consciousness is alive, ergo, he is alive!

Bienvenido is alive!


And I am dead.


Maybe it’s me who’s dead. Maybe it’s me who’s damned dead – a troubled living dead who knows nothing but gratify the self. And I think it’s me who’s now on trial. The tables are now turned. Now it’s me who’s on trial.

It was some three weeks ago while I was on my way home, driving through heavy traffic along southbound Aurora Boulevard, that I  inadvertently ran my hand on the left side of my neck, as I would usually wipe the sweat off my nape. That was when I noticed a lump just about where my lymph node was.

And as I recklessly write this tract, I am now ready for tomorrow’s third test via ultrasound of the neck, after having been under two tests last week: chest x-ray and tuberculin skin test, both of which were to rule out probable consumptive diagnosis. And oh yes, my lungs are clear and my skin is free from such sign which only goes to show that the lesser evil is now out of the picture.

Thus, a case of mea culpa: this interior locution is not meant to paint this running memoir with portent strokes of foreboding. I simply surmise what I needed to say. Maybe it’s because my subconscious self has been screaming to let it all out, as I’d like to think that someone else is narrating this cryptic episode for me.

And the memory extends itself even beyond the confines of the text until it overflows to the conscious writing of the same text — thus, a kind of layered meta-CNF has also evolved.

And now, as I journey into the realm of my CNF as literary memoir, I reflect on my poetics through my written works tucked within my writing life, embellished with inspirations culled from Noriega — my biographical subject alongside his works, though not necessarily limited within this sphere.

Thus, I could dare declare that as we read each other through our works and consciousness, and speak with each other through our inner lives and voices, we rediscover our poetics to probably give it a new light — a new meaning, a new dimension — within a whole new configuration of thought and feeling.

This seemingly brave pronouncement serves to address the promise and possibilities of this literary biography/memoir to be of hopeful relevance, function and contribution to contemporary Philippine literature – a genre which I would love to further explore, both personally and publicly, apart from aiming to navigate and trace its roots from the auto/biographical narrative genre as well as chart my own writing development from playwright-screenwriter to literary biographer/memoirist — while tracing their possible influences and development.

Likewise, in a way, through this writing project, I’m reimagining him now, as I speak, as if he were alive – again.

Noriega’s Labyrinth:

A Biomythography/Memoir

This part I shall deal with by discussing the content and form of my creative nonfiction project, a literary biography of Bienvenido Noriega, Jr., and with my memoir tucked alongside it. I shall discuss its chapters and my writing strategy, in the hope that I make sense to the readers who may find this genre either intriguing or perplexing, but certainly, and without a doubt, interesting.

This hero archetype is seen in several of Noriega’s  plays through their protagonists, namely, the characters Dino and Pol in ‘Bayan-Bayanan’; the hero-painter ‘Juan Luna’; and Tommy Santillan and Propesor Magdangal in ‘Deuterium’; among others, as represented well as imbedded in the subject’s writing life.

“His plays, ‘Bayan-Bayanan,’  ‘Mga Idolong Romantiko,’ ‘Bayan Mo,’ and ‘Deuterium’ show how a nation (though on a more personal scale) can descend into lawless feuds and lynches. The plays are jocular in its depiction of the Filipino’s collective folly. ‘Bayan-Bayanan’ is partly autobiographical and is based loosely on Filipinos whom Noriega met in Switzerland. Sequestered in a foreign country for the first time, Filipinos will do everything to summon a sense of home away from home.”

“Deuterium, on the other hand, ruminates on the great impossibility. In the play, the Philippines becomes the richest nation in the world following the discovery of deuterium or hydrogen water. But even then, the Filipino proves to be congenitally indisposed to forge a nation – whether in poverty or in wealth” (49).

I also remember having directed this play at the PICC for Dramatis Personae sometime in August-September 1992 when it just won first prize in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Competition. And boy, did I have fun doing it. I remember Boy teasing me the way I would enjoy handling his bed scenes.

“Go ahead, nibble it, milk it!” He exclaimed. ‘Deuterium,’ though it was saying something important and relevant about the Filipino’s elusive quest to finally unite as one nation, shamelessly expressed its irreverent, playful, and quirky candor on the lure of sex and love amid squalor.

His ‘Juan Luna’ on the other hand speaks of the legendary hero-painter as humanly and humanely possible as it could.  His committed murder to his wife and mother-in-law which gave vent to a crime of passion was eventually deemed forgivable — and befitting of an acquittal by the French Court.

Noriega explored further the genre of biography as drama. In 1990, he was commissioned by the Cultural Center of the Philippines to write a slice-of-life drama based on the lyrical but foreboding life of another major artist of his generation, National Artist for Music Nicanor Abelardo –  and the result of which was ‘Bituing Marikit,’ a play in which his dramaturgical template, this time, was George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” I remember once when he told me that apart from Chekhov, he had always wanted to do a Shaw.

His ‘Bayan-Bayanan,’ though, is definitely Chekhovian.

Then Noriega’s genre shifted from the serious to the jocular side of the theatre as parody and entertainment. He let his hair down with the frothy and rambunctious ‘Bongbong at Kris,’ a futuristic political-romantic comedy about two star-crossed lovers, an unlikely pair in post-EDSA One Philippine politics with the late dictator’s son Bongbong Marcos and his arch nemesis’ daughter Kris Aquino as ‘Romeo and Juliet’-cloned protagonists. And the play for all its worth became an instant commercial hit.

Mythologizing Noriega

In my biography/memoir’s prologue, Noriega is likened to the iron-winged Daedalus who, this time saves Icarus from falling off the sea as his waxed wings melt from the sun’s scorching heat. The “I” persona is Icarus.

I really don’t know but this is perhaps my way of immortalizing Icarus as well. Thus, allow me to cite this tract from my CNF project.

I am a fallen angel.

Flying too close to the sun, my wings melt and I fall headlong to earth. Suddenly from nowhere, someone catches me spreading his wings as wide as his benevolence. His wings are made of steel, unlike mine, of wax.

I realized then I am in good hands- the hands of a mentor who would be the joie de vivre of my universe. And his name is Bienvenido.

He welcomed me into his life, and I swear but not for the warmth and quietude of his presence, I never would have gone his far, this very far indeed.

And even if he were gone, his omnipresence in me, as I slowly sense the regeneration of my wings, this time, evolving into a kind that is steadfast and firm, has healed and raised me from the nothingness where he once picked me – from the mire – onto a seeming world, his world of the literary and intimate sublime.

Suddenly, I slip out of my dream.

It comes very clear to mind: I had been in good hands – those of my mentor in the literary firmament, Bienvenido M. Noriega, Jr.

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