Dalisay (right) and his new book from Anvil, a collection of his short fiction. Portrait by Romeo Peralta Jr. Book image by Tammy David.

Butch Dalisay on killing time in prison with Bencab, working under Brocka, and writing for Marcos

ANCX speaks with penman extraordinaire and recently retired academician, Butch Dalisay, author of a new collection of stories called Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay. In this rare interview, the man muses about pens, movies, martial law, and the lost tradition of writers as politicians and politicians as writers
Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta | Aug 24 2019

Butch Dalisay is explaining pens to us this morning—he’s showing us finds from the 1920s and 1940s. Montblancs, Parker Duofolds, Big Reds, and Vacumatics. He shows us the ones that are for daily use, the trailer queens, the vintage and retro finds.  

His favorite pen is an Agatha Christie Montblanc—a writer’s edition known for the snake on its clip and the simplicity of its design. He’s used this pen everyday for the past five years. It’s been with him to mangrove swamps, beaches, mountains. It writes beautifully, Dalisay says, they’ll never make them again.

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The 1992 Montblanc Agatha Christie, Dalisay’s grail pen.

He moves on and shows us a Parker Big Red. This is the pen Douglas MacArthur used to sign the Japanese surrender papers; it’s a pen used by men and women of great responsibility.

And then there’s the 1938 Parker Vacumatic—a pen which comes with a great backstory.  The Vacumatic had been his holy grail, and he had walked into a pen shop in Edinburgh looking for it.  “I asked the saleslady there at the counter, ‘would you happen to have a 1930s parker Vacumatic Oversize in Burgundy?’. And she says, without batting an eyelash, ‘as a matter of fact, we do.’” Dalisay describes this as one of those moments where you hear the tinkling of bells and the crashing of waves. “And I thought ‘Oh, my God, I have to have this pen.’” When buyer’s remorse set in shortly after, he did the only thing a great writer does. He wrote a story.

The story was called Penmanship, and the protagonist is a great letter writer (whose instrument of choice is, of course, the Parker Vacumatic.). He writes to newspaper editors, and he writes to sundry so-and-sos, but we get the sense that every letter he writes is a letter to the written word. “The pen pushed him on to one word and another,” an unforgettable passage from the story reads, “creating a sudden and inescapable intimacy less between himself and so-and-so, but between him and the paper.”

Dalisay’s great Parker finds—used throughout history by men of great responsibility.

In a sense, this is what Dalisay has been doing his entire life, pushing on to one word and another, closing the distance between him and paper—from his first days as a features writer to his days as a journalist leading up to the country’s martial law years. He’s written films for Brocka and speeches for at least three presidents. And the time in between each assignment or script or biography, he’s spent writing some of the very best fiction in the country. He’s also been a beloved fixture at the University of the Philippines for more than three decades—serving, at various points, as Literature and Creative Writing professor, Chairperson at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, and Vice President for Public Affairs. Dalisay retired in January 2019.

We speak to him about martial law, movies, politics, and the kind of country we’re leaving behind for our children. But only after he tells us that his most treasured pen—despite his stash of rarities and collectors’ prizes— is an old chewed-up Bic ballpen that belonged to his father.


Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

ANCX: What were you doing in the months leading up to martial law?

BD: Martial Law was ’72. Sometime in April ’72, I think, mid-’72, there was a strike at the Herald [where Dalisay was a writer] and being an activist, I joined the strikers. You know, I wrote up this nasty—this cocky—letter to the editor, saying that I’m siding with my comrades, and so on, and I’m resigning. I thought I was hot shit because I knew that they were happy with my writing. I didn’t think they would let me go, but they did.

ANCX: They did?

BD: They said, Ok, you wanna go, you go. So I was jobless for like a couple of weeks, and then I moved over to Taliba, writing in Filipino. And that’s where Martial Law caught me. I was actually here on campus.

ANCX: What was that like?

BD: I was attending a rally half as a participant and half as a journalist – those lines were always blurred with me. I was attending a rally here at Kamia and Sampaguita dorms, and then suddenly, we heard shooting, gunfire. It would turn out later that the Iglesia Ni Kristo was being overtaken, by soldiers because I think the guards resisted, so there was some shooting. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that it was Martial Law, so of course, my first instinct was to call the night editor, to say, Boss, may scoop ako dito. Nagbabarilan dito sa UP. Sabi niya, Ah, tinututukan din kami dito, sabi niya. Wala nang diyaryo. Martial Law na. So that was the end, at least for that time, of my career as a journalist. And a few months later, I was arrested.

You know, I wrote up this nasty—this cocky—letter to the editor, saying that I’m siding with my comrades, and so on, and I’m resigning. I thought I was hot shit because I knew that they were happy with my writing.

ANCX: Tell us about that.

BD: I went home for Christmas, which turned out to be my undoing because I had a beer with a neighbor who turned out to be a military asset. [He] turned me in. So I was arrested. First thing I saw when I was brought to Camp Crame was the sofa from the UG house where we’d been staying, so I thought huli na lahat kami nito. So I spent the next seven months in prison, which is basically what you find in Killing Time In A Warm Place (a novel about the Martial Law years in the Philippines).

Killing Time in a Warm Place by Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. Photograph from Good Reads

When I left prison, I didn’t really write there. I did have a journal which I still keep, a diary. I became an artist there. I was there with Orly Castillo, the printmaker—we had an arts group—and when I got out, I went into printmaking for two years at the printmakers’ association.

But that’s where I met Beng (Dalisay’s wife), because she was also with the underground, she was an artist working in finance, raising funds for the movement and that’s where we met. So that was also a heady time for me. Again, I was still a young guy, 18, ah, 19 now, I turned 19 in prison. 19 and I was there with the likes of BenCab, Tiny Nuyda, and all these people who became big afterwards. And so I met Beng, and we fell in love, got together.

ANCX: Tell us when you first became interested in writing for the movies.

BD: In the 1970s, I wrote plays alongside my officemate and fraternity brother Boy Noriega, who also became my closest mentor at that time, because Boy had formally studied drama. I mean, he was in economics. When they sent him to Harvard for public administration, he was also studying drama, and he would write me long letters about Ibsen and Chekhov, and we got really close. And we were fierce competitors at the Palancas. In the 1976 CCP playwriting contest,  I won first prize, he won second prize, and our teacher Amelia Bonifacio won third prize. And that was the only time I ever beat Boy.

It was heady. Very. The awards were still held at the Palanca office in the top floor. Nothing fancy. But still, being with all of these big people, big names. I didn’t know any of them. I was out of school. You know, I did not even go through the workshops then. I never went to the UP workshop. I would later go to Silliman, but only in 1981. So I began winning Palancas. Well, after I won my first one, I lost four years straight in a row, so I thought it must’ve been a fluke. But then I hit my stride because I kept joining and joining and joining, so that was my real education. Just kept writing stuff. And then I won again in like 1980, dere-derecho na yon.

And then in the late ‘70s, I began writing screenplays for Lino Brocka.

ANCX: Which ones are yours?

BD: The more forgettable ones because, it’s funny, Lino had a filmography of maybe about 63 movies. Fourteen of them were mine but, of course, people remember the scripts that my friends Pete Lacaba and Ricky Lee and Joey Reyes wrote. It was kind of a running joke among us that if he wanted something, the best stories, the longest gestating projects went to Pete Lacaba, like Jaguar and Sister Stella L, because he was the slowest writer. He would take six months to finish a script. Kami ni Ricky, we were the fastest guns. I once finished a script in like three days. And then if he wanted something masalimuot—you know like stories with six couples in it—he would get Joey Reyes. So, I began with a tearjerker Tahan na Empoy, tahan with a very small Nino Muhlach. And now and then, Lino and I would get the license to do something more creative.

Photograph from www.themoviedb.org

The formula was let’s do three commercial movies and then we’ll do one project we really want to do. The most important movie that I did for him was Miguelito, which was the introductory movie for Aga Muhlach, who was like 16 or 15 at that time. And so we thought, ‘What can you do with a 16 year-old guy with the voice of a frog or something?’ And so I said, ‘Ok, let’s just take him as he is.’ That’s the character, work the story around him. That’s what we did. Turned out to be a very, very good political drama, with Helen Gamboa and Eddie Garcia.

Lino had a filmography of maybe about 63 movies. Fourteen of them were mine but, of course, people remember the scripts that my friends Pete Lacaba and Ricky Lee and Joey Reyes wrote.

ANCX: By political, do you mean it was about Marcos?

BD: [It was about] small-time corruption. Because Aga was being brought up as a mayor’s son, which he was, but his real mother was Helen whom the mayor had impregnated a long time ago, and who was now kind of a poor struggling carinderia owner, and Aga would see her but not recognize her as his mother. Eventually of course, the truth came out. Uh, it was one of those stories set in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, and Lino would keep coming back to that place, you know, like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, they’re all San Jose stories. So, my partnership with Lino lasted a long time until his death.

Photograph from IMDb

ANCX: In a car crash, in the ‘90s—

BD: Yeah, ’92, ’91, early ’91. Eventually, I would do about 25 movies, so that’s a whole other career that I got into. Movies with Celso Ad Castillo and Laurice Guillen, Gil Portes, Joel Lamangan, Marilou Diaz-Abaya. But it was really my time with Lino that was most precious to me, I guess, because he was a good mentor. He respected my scripts, even if I knew that cinema was really the director’s thing. I was prepared to compromise— I’m used to compromising—but Lino made me compromise the least. But movie writing came with a lot of heartache because there were a couple of times I never got paid. And then of course, the experience of seeing your work mangled in less capable hands.

All these disappointments, they kinda pushed me to fiction because I thought that in fiction, I could be writer-director-cinematographer-actor-editor – it was all mine. So I took up fiction seriously, and began writing more and more stories. And eventually I moved out of film to focus on fiction and non-fiction.

Penmanship by Jose Dalisay. Photograph from Good Reads

The non-fiction side, which is more what I do now in terms of commissioned biographies, that began with the biography of the Lava brothers in 1998, which I really wanted to do because I had known Jesus Lava from prison—we were in prison together. And I was fascinated by that story of, I mean, how could these upper middle-class boys turn communist, you know. They were landlords from Bulacan. And we used to curse them because they belonged to the Soviet side of things; we were Maoists. So I was fascinated by them, and in fact, I wrote a play about them in 1980 called Pagsabog ng Liwanag.

And so that put me on the path of non-fiction. And then as the years went by, the commissions would come. And now I find myself laden with all these assignments that I take as a professional because I always see my writing as a blessing. I mean, as that kid who wrote school papers for fifty centavos, again I’ve never divorced writing from making a living. I look at my fiction as all of these biographies of little people that no one will pay for. It’s how I compensate for the million-peso biographies of these big men and women.

ANCX: What a career. How did you get into writing speeches for politicians?

BD: Oh, that began at NEDA, because one of my jobs, ironically, was to write speeches on economics for Marcos. My boss Gerry Sicat actually sent me back to school in UP so I could learn some economics so I could do that, and I’m really thankful for that—the economics part—because that fed into the geeky side of me. You also see this in my hobbies and collections. There’s a digital and analogue side of me. I used to be president of the Philippine Macintosh users group. [I was] one of the early founders actually. There’s a side of me that collects and takes apart computers. Maybe that’s the Philippine Science High School side [Dalisay finished high school in Philippine Science High School]. But there’s also a romantic side, which loves old books and watches and pens. The pens, in particular for me are the perfect fusion of art and engineering.

I look at my fiction as all of these biographies of little people that no one will pay for. It’s how I compensate for the million-peso biographies of these big men and women.

But the politics, yes, it started with writing for Marcos. Then in 1993, I think, I was taken in by Teddy Boy Locsin to co-write the editorials for him for the newspaper that he had just founded, which was Today. I actually wrote the opening editorial—I actually wrote most of the editorials because Teddy Boy was busy publishing. So inevitably, I had to soak up all the political stuff. I mean I must say I’m kind of a political hawk, too. I love the intrigue, studying these people as characters, like in a play.

ANCX: These are interesting times.

BD: Oh, yes—very, very much so. Also very troubling, of course. It’s like many people wake up thinking, What just happened? Where did those forty years of struggle go just to wake up to this headline? I’m not gonna be around much longer, but you guys will.

ANCX: So you wrote speeches for Marcos?

BD: It wasn’t a personal relationship or anything, I never saw him, I mean, we never dealt with each other face-to-face. Sometimes I’d see his notes on my drafts. The person I wrote the most speeches for was Fidel Ramos.

ANCX: Did you like Ramos as a leader?

BD: I actually did. Of course, he had his flaws like everybody else. But he was, to me, the most presidential of them all. Very hard worker, smart guy, ambitious, of course, but also driven to work. And in my hard drive is still about 700 speeches that I wrote for him on all kinds of things.

He had his flaws like everybody else. But he was, to me, the most presidential of them all. Very hard worker, smart guy, ambitious, of course, but also driven to work.

Typically, in one day, I would do three or four speeches. This wasn’t in MalacaƱang. This was an off-campus operation. Actually, in West Avenue, at the office of Johnny Gatbonton, because Johnny, again another of my mentors—a very fine writer of fiction himself. But I would do, again, three to four speeches every day.

ANCX: How did you manage to do all that?

BD: I’m a fast writer. I don’t agonize a lot about what to put on the page except when it’s fiction. You know I’ve always said that if you’re a professional writer, you should train yourself so that you produce words like a faucet spits out water. When you’re turned on, the words come out.

BD: [on politics and writing] We’ve always had a long tradition, we forget that writers were politicians, and politicians were writers. I often say our heroes were writers—our heroes were poets, our poets were heroes. And we lost that connection a long time ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised if, you know, you find this all the way to people like, people like Blas Ople and Adrian Cristobal. Of course, the unfortunate aspect of that was that they were seen as collaborators of, with the dictatorship. But again, it’s a long tradition of writers and politics working together.

The great penman talks to us about pens, politics, and the writing life.

ANCX: What are your thoughts on the current administration?

BD: The sad thing is I’m not even saddened as much by Duterte himself because this guy is, this guy is gone. But it’s all the people that he has corrupted, not financially, but morally and intellectually. Why are they all cheering him on, and why are they all laughing at his awful jokes? And these are otherwise good and sensible people. That’s what I’m really sorry about, what he has done to us, to bring out the worst in us, to encourage the worst in us. And that’s going to be his legacy.

ANCX: What do you think his real intentions are?

BD: I can’t even see those intentions anymore. At some level, I suppose he wants a form of social order as every leader will. But this clearly isn’t the way to do it. But nobody’s stopping him. And that also supports my long-running disaffection with the left—which went to bed with him for a good two years. The only people who might have formed the core of a truly strong opposition, chose to support him. Which is why our only hope, as I often say here in UP, is really that great liberal middle—which as I said in my talk when I retired, the heart of UP lies neither in the despotic right nor the doctrinaire left, but in that great liberal middle, which despite all of its confusions and contradictions and vacillations and weaknesses, still presents the most honest response in defense of truth and reason and freedom and justice.


Photographs by Romeo Peralta Jr.