Benjamin Pimentel: A writer's sense of mission

A writer's sense of mission 
By Walter Ang
November 24, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Currently showing at the intimate Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is "Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street," a play adapted by Rody Vera from the novel by Benjamin Pimentel, which recently won the Juan C. Laya Award for Fiction in the 2008 National Book Awards.

Staged by Tanghalang Pilipino, "Gerilya" tells the stories of a group of Filipino World War II veterans as they wait for the full benefits promised to them and, at the same time, as they wait for their "long-distance call from heaven."

Directed by Chris Millado, the play features a powerhouse cast that includes Tommy Abuel and Bembol Roco alternating in the role of Fidel and Lou Veloso and Bodjie Pascua alternating in the role of Ciriaco, just two of the several characters who reminisce about their days in the war, the women they've loved, and the families they've left behind.

Real stories 
Pimentel grew up in Quezon City and took up political science at Ateneo De Manila University. He relocated to the USA in 1990 to attend University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and eventually became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering information technology and Asian American issues.

"It was also the same time when Filipino veterans started moving to that area after they were granted the opportunity to become American citizens," he says. These were the Filipinos who fought alongside US forces against the Japanese in the Philippines. They were promised citizenship when the war began but were only able to claim on the agreement almost half a century later.

He would notice these old veterans hanging out in one of the train stations on Powell Street. "May of these men were old and sick. San Francisco can be a beautiful place, but the weather can be brutal," he notes.

While their service during the war entitled them to citizenship, Filipino veterans were not entitled to the regular benefits of American military veterans. They were only entitled to receive supplemental security income, roughly USD600. "They need to survive on less than that in order to send home money to their families, which in San Francisco, is virtually impossible," he says. He points out that many Filipino veterans usually share one room, from five to ten people per room, and end up eating at soup kitchens.

Final mission 
Pimentel likens the arrival of these men on American shores to a final mission, of "beteranos [plunging] into their new battle as old men." They now fight against the forces of cold, hunger and loneliness.

Pimentel started writing about the veterans and discovered an ineluctable dilemma many of them face: In the mid-90s, the veterans' plight drew enough attention to spur the fight for an Equity Bill that would grant them equal benefits enjoyed by other US military veterans. However, if the Filipino veterans were to die in San Francisco while waiting for the bill to be passed, there is a considerable financial burden to ship their bodies back to the Philippines for burial. A burden most of them cannot afford. "For many Filipinos, cremation is a `no, no'," he says.

The stories of their yearning for dignity stirred Pimentel into developing a non-fiction account of their plight together with documentary photographer Rick Rocamora. The project did not materialize, but their stories stayed with Pimentel. He soon turned to fiction to "retell and reimagine what these men had gone through."

He wrote a short story, "Waiting on Powell Street," which won first prize in the Bienvenido Santos Story Contest in the US. This inspired him to expand the material into a novel. He'd started writing it in English but soon encountered resistance. "It was as if the characters in my novel rebelled against me. They'd ask why I was making them speak in English when they were Filipinos," Pimentel says.

Another level 
The result of his work was picked up for publication by Maricor Baytion of the Ateneo de Manila University Press and became a bestseller last year. The novel is currently available only in the Philippines but there are initial plans to translate the novel into English.

Pimentel has previously written "UG, An Underground Tale," about the life and times of Edgar Jopson, a bestseller in Manila in 2006, and recently completed "Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama's America," published by Anvil. "`Pareng Barack' is my take on the racial, ethnic, immigration issues that have cropped up in the context of the recently concluded US presidential campaign," he says.

Pimentel recently arrived in Manila and caught a performance of the play. He says, "The play takes the novel to another level, it's heartening to see the stories and themes of the book acted out onstage. The actors are really great!" Discussions have been held to explore the possibility of touring the production in the US, however, due to prohibitive costs, the option of having Filipino American or Asian American theater groups based in San Francisco and Chicago stage the material is also being considered.

"Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama's America," will be launched on November 26 at 6 p.m. at Bestsellers Ortigas, Robinson's Galleria. "Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street" runs until November 30, 2008. For details, call 832-3661 or Ticketworld at 891-9999.

Also published online: writers-sense-of-mission