Wednesday ∗ 05 Oct 2011

Luisa Mallari-Hall, teacher

in April 2000, Prof. Luisa Mallari-Hall died in a plane crash, along with her husband and two children. she was a wonderful woman/teacher/friend/human being whose teaching continues to resonate with me, 15 years since she was first my teacher in 1996. these two essays were written soon after she died, the first one for a SEA newsletter, the second one i read at the tribute put together by the DECL in U.P.

in 2010, i give birth and lose a child. i named her Luisa.

Homage to Luisa

It is said that teaching is the most important profession of all – doctor or lawyer, engineer or businessman, even the teacher, is shaped by teachers. But teaching, beyond being a profession is also, ultimately, about being an example to those one teaches. Whether in a private catholic school or a liberal state university, teachers are inevitably icons of the subjects they teach and the institutions they serve. They are, whether they like it or not, models against which students will measure themselves.

This makes teaching a taller order than one thinks. For one does not only need to have the knowledge to impart and the ability to get this across, a teacher also needs to live what he or she teaches. The classroom is only a venue for teaching. Outside the classroom, teachers are testament to what they teach. A teacher who does not practice what he or she preaches debunks the very things he or she says are important inside the classroom. This to me is the line drawn between professional teachers and real teachers. The former teach for a living, the latter live what they teach.

Prof. Luisa Mallari-Hall was the epitome of the latter. More important than what I learned from her inside the classroom was what I learned from her outside. Unlike any of the other teachers in U.P.’s Department of English and Comparative Literature, Ma’am Mallari decided to learn Bahasa-Malay instead of French, German, or some other Western language. And she didn’t learn it out of a need to – that would have only meant taking the 12 units the University could offer her of a foreign language – she learned it because she wanted to. Because it would only be through learning the language that she would live up to her own standards of comparing literatures in Asia. That is, comparative literature not in translation, but in the original. Because, as she would always tell me, there is just no other right way of doing it.

And really, no other way of studying Asian literature and culture. While it is true that the English literatures in Asia are a valid area of study, to celebrate these literatures invariably leads to the marginalization of cultural texts in the Asian national languages, at the same time that it encourages the study of Asian texts in translation. For why waste time and energy in studying another language, when there is English to fall back on? Ma’am Mallari, by choosing to study Bahasa-Malay, taught me that beyond expertise in a certain area of study is the more important question of relevance. What is gained for Asia by the study of the literatures in English it has produced? What, other than the possibility of winning international writing contests and getting published in the West? What, other than removing oneself from the region you are part of by focusing and using a language that continues to be spoken by a few in it? Further, to study Asian literature in translation is to do an injustice to the original texts and to scholarship on Asia in general. While admittedly, we Asians come together through and with the use of the English language, Ma’am Mallari’s choice of Bahasa-Malay tells us that the use of English should only be a phase in the kind of scholarship we should be doing on Asia. To rely on what is written in and translated into English of Asian literature is, ultimately, to take the easy way out in our study of Asian culture. It is settling for second best.

Ma’am Mallari didn’t settle, and she taught me not to, regardless of the probability of marginalization or marked difference. In this country, to seriously take Asia as an area of study (i.e., to study Asia in an Asian national language) is a liability – for how would one get grants from the U.S. or Europe if one is studying a region that is not considered important? A region that doesn’t see itself as such, the countries within it being so diversified by colonization that they find more affinity with the West than with the East that they are part of? And why would one get a European or American grant, when one insists on writing in a foreign Asian language? Ma’am Mallari’s answer was that one does not get those grants – one does not need them. She took pride in not having traveled outside of Asia other than to her husband’s Australia. She was even more proud that she did not find the need to go, nor dreamt of ever going, beyond Asia. When she made the choice to study Bahasa-Malay, she did so because she felt that it was the only way she could do justice to the literature of Malaysia and, in effect, to scholarship on Asia. That this would limit her to the region, even to Southeast Asia only, meant nil to her.

This, however, meant more to me than she ever knew. For she did not only teach me not to settle for second best in any endeavor, she also taught me not to settle for anything less than what is due me – both as a Filipino and as an Asian. And she showed me that what is due me is only about as much as I am willing to give of myself to this country and to Asia. In the end, Ma’am Mallari did not only personify the kind of comparativist she wanted to be, but also proved herself to be the rarest of Asian scholars, particularly in the land of neo-colonial Philippines. To me, she proved to be the rarest ever of real teachers, who lived to teach, and who lived what she taught.

Before Ma’am Mallari died, she was happy and high from a recent trip to Malaysia that she thought was to be a standard affair on Asian culture but turned out to be a surprise tribute to her. She was the guest of honor, with a streamer welcoming her and her picture in the program (if she had known, she would have sent a nicer picture daw). Her dissertation, written in Bahasa-Malay, was also posthumously published by her university in Malaysia – a moment she had been looking forward to, and an achievement that we should all be proud of, unparalleled as it is by any other scholar in this country.

We encounter too many teachers in our lifetimes, but few become our teachers for life. Prof. Luisa Mallari-Hall, beyond her lifetime, will always be mine.

Thanking Luisa

Last week, a friend from the Collegian asked if he could interview me about Ma’am Mallari. I said maybe later, it was too soon, I wasn’t ready just yet, I couldn’t do justice to her memory, anything I’d come up with would be insufficient.

Writing this now (as there was no saying no to May) I am swamped by snippets of memories, slices of life shared with her. Like, how scary she was in that first class I took under her, and how difficult it was. She was the classic “terror” teacher – she’d enter the classroom and the class would throb with intense fear. She expected brilliant students, and given otherwise, would resort to the most difficult exams, pushing us to measure up.

Later, when she ended up being my adviser, and I was comfortable enough with her to say that she was the scariest and the most difficult teacher I had ever had, she said that she was conscious of it and loved being such. Her own teachers were worse, she said, and she had found that she learned more from those who instilled a certain amount of fear in her.

I couldn’t see myself taking a class under her again. But while she was on her long maternity leave, I realized that I missed her kind of teaching. That I worked harder in her class because I feared her, and that ultimately her strictness was always all about teaching her students the value of disciplined scholarship. The kind which doesn’t bark up the wrong trees or just pounce on issues because they are popular. The kind which didn’t compromise – which could take a stand, be clear about its assumptions, and, even, double-guess itself.

When she came back, I took three of her classes – another literature class and two of her Bahasa language classes. She insisted that, like her, I should learn an Asian language, because it would give me an edge. I saw her everyday that semester at 7 am for Bahasa class which she held in her office. After class, I’d usually stay and chat while she finished her first cigarette of the day. She’d lend me books, we’d talk about all sorts of things, from the latest gossip to alternative medical therapies, to the literature class I had with her the day before — the syllabi of which had Mao Tse Tung, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and Zeus Salazar all at the same time. She’d talk about the projects she was working on, how she needed to come out with her own book, and how she hadn’t written anything in such a long time, she was not even sure she could come up with anything substantial.

When she found out that two literature majors, Mayo Martin and I, had won a two-week travel grant in Thailand, besting social science majors, she was thrilled for us. These were venues, she said, that didn’t usually consider or welcome literature majors, and this was where we could assert ourselves and prove our worth.

On her birthday last year, she treated our Bahasa class to breakfast in Katipunan, and we talked about U2 and MTV Asia. Since then, I had kidded her a couple of times about how she seemed to have mellowed. She admitted that she had been wondering about it herself, and wasn’t sure why.

Thinking back now, she was also the happiest I had seen her. Blissfully content with her family, enjoying her work in Seasrep and Public Policy, excited about teaching and putting together new reading lists, and all sorts of projects she had lined up…

I had been looking forward to working with her and continuing to learn from her.
Unconsciously, I realize now, I was planning my life based on what she had done with hers, just because she was not only the kind of teacher I want to be, she was also the kind of woman and friend I want to be.

My one regret is, I never got to thank her, I never got to tell her how special she was to me. Hopefully, now I have.

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