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The Artist Abroad

Torquemada is alive and well in Sampaloc

04:43 AM June 23, 2014

NEW YORK, New York This year would have been an unusual one for me in terms of publications. I would have had a volume of poems and a collection of nonfiction out, with just a couple of months separating the former from the latter. Two books in the same calendar year: It would have been a first. I hadn’t planned it this way and, as it turns out, that is not what happened.

Tattered Boat, the volume of poems, did appear in print last April, published by the University of the Philippines Press, which had also put out my last full-length poetry collection, Museum of Absences (co-published in 2005 with the San Francisco-based Meritage Press).

At the same time, I had a nonfiction manuscript—RE: Reflections, Reviews, Recollections—that in July of 2013 I submitted to the University of Santo Tomas Press. The next month its director Jack Wigley e-mailed me to say that UST Press had accepted the manuscript and would therefore publish it. (At this point, no objections were made to any portion of the manuscript—this is important to note, in light of what ensued.) The timetable would have the book out in spring this year, in late May or early June, just in time for a reading and a workshop I would be conducting at the annual Yale Writers Conference, from June 7th to the 17th. The timing couldn’t have been better.

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But alas the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. Over the course of seven to eight months, the manuscript was laid out, the design chosen, blurbs solicited, and the first round of PDFs issued. I had also in the meantime written an introduction, “Keeping the Cat Alive.” I went over this first batch of proofs and made some decidedly minor changes. Finally, this past April, nine months after the manuscript was accepted in its entirety, I was sent the last round of PDFs. Once I approved these proofs, all systems would be go.

Accompanying the final proofs was an e-mail from the Press’ deputy director, Ailil Alvarez, who had up to this point been quite accommodating. On behalf of the “Dominican-run Royal and Pontifical University,” she asked me to excise an essay that she felt would be interpreted as going against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. And UST as we all know is nothing if not a tireless defender of Rome, or at least the Rome that lives on in the neoconservative worldview. In short, UST Press expected me to censor myself if I wished to have the manuscript bear its imprimatur. (The essay that raised Inquisitorial hackles is “Pharisees in Manila,” first published in this space in October of 2010. In it I address the issue of gender inequality in the Catholic Church, and ask why couldn’t there be women as priests and a woman as head of the institution, a Mama instead of a Papa. I also advocated for the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill, then pending.)

I replied that the Press had to be joking. I pointed out the obvious: The Press had had the manuscript in hand for nine to ten months, meaning that all the contents had presumably been read and vetted by the editorial board and in that time not one single peep of protest, not one iota of an objection, was raised. But I was informed that a copy editor had read this one essay, had been bothered by it, and a red flag was raised. Suddenly all systems were no longer go.

I am no neophyte when it comes to the editorial process. I have been a proofreader, a copy editor and an editor, and I can tell you that a copy editor does not make decisions that stop the presses. This being the University of Santo Tomas, I saw the hem of clerical robes in the background, for which the unnamed copy editor would be the beard.

My refusal to go along with this “request” generated more e-mails from the Press, asking me to reconsider. The deputy director did finally admit that it was she who had made the decision, Director Wigley being out of the country at the time, adding that “neither the Rector nor any priest administrator has seen the MS at the time of my e-mail.” In fact, according to her, the deputy director and/or the director “only get to peruse the complete MS before it becomes final.”

How bizarre! Accept a manuscript first and only then read it in its entirety? Had Alvarez or Wigley or both read the manuscript in parts and, presumably delighted on that basis, accepted the entire manuscript? That may seem flattering. but on the other hand this ass-backwards scenario took up nine months of my time. Had this objection been raised at the outset and acceptance of the manuscript made contingent on the essay’s excision, I would have said no, and gone on to seek another publisher. And UST Press would have been spared the preproduction trouble and expense.

For the second time, I said no. This time, Director Wigley took over, assuring me that it wasn’t the Press’s intent to suppress ideas—“like you we do not believe in censorship”—that the Press loved my work, had no intention of offending me, and was furthermore honored that I had entrusted the manuscript to UST. If only I would choose another, more palatable essay to replace “Pharisees in Manila” then everything would be hunky dory. This of course is the kind of sophistry that would make the Curia proud, totally in keeping with the medievalist traditions of which, as I was unpleasantly reminded, UST seems to be the proud guardian. The real fear was that, in Director Wigley’s words, the priests would be “put in a bad light.” Absolutely. How would the Dominicans ever live down the scandal of having open minds and tolerating an exercise in democracy?

Once again, I said no. But UST Press is nothing if not persistent, and persuaded a mutual acquaintance—an academic and cultural critic—to act as mediator. In an extraordinarily lengthy e-mail sent to me, this person rehashed the same arguments the Press had put forward.

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And once again, I said no, and wondered what in the word “no” did the Press not understand. I also asked why the mediator, himself a writer, was not arguing on my behalf and speaking truth to power. The only concession I was willing to grant would be a one-sentence disclaimer stating the obvious, that the views expressed in RE were solely the author’s and did not in any way reflect the thinking of UST and its Dominican stalwarts. Otherwise it was flattering to think that my writings would somehow undo the hoary ramparts of this most Catholic of Catholic universities, there since the 17th century and, as their PR hacks like to trumpet, older than Harvard. Its thinking is certainly ancient but alas, not any wiser.

Once UST understood that “no” meant no, it retracted what it had once so enthusiastically received. But there is a good ending here. I subsequently submitted the manuscript to UP Press, which has just accepted it. According to UP Press Director Neil Garcia, at least three writers whose books were to have been published by UST found themselves subjected to similar “requests.” They had repudiated these, then turned to and were published by UP Press. These three books are: The Queen Lives Alone: Personal Essays, by Ronald Baytan (2012); Kung Nanaisin: Mga Tula, by Romulo Baquiran (2012); and Virtual Nation, by Sylvia Mayuga (2013).

Garcia is familiar with this issue, having headed the Philippine Association of Academic and Scholarly Publishers (PASAP) for a couple of years. He did bring to the attention of its members, including UST Press, the issue of censorship—there is no other word for it, despite UST Press’ protestations—citing the three books mentioned above. As for UST’s nihil obstat/imprimatur process, Garcia puts it very well when he says that this process overrides literary evaluation and “subjects literary works to nothing less than a religious inquisition.”

Somewhere in the hallways of that royal and pontifical university, the ghost of Grand Inquisitor for Spain, Tomás de Torquemada, once described as the “hammer of heretics” and “savior” of the Dominicans, must be smiling contentedly.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2014

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TAGS: “Pharisees in Manila, ” University of the Philippines Press, book publishing, censorship, Dominicans, Grand Inquisitor for Spain, Meritage Press, RE: Reflections, Recollections, Reviews, Spanish Inquisition, Tomás de Torquemada, University of Santo Tomas, UST Press
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