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In Memoriam: Gilbert Yap Tan (1956-2019), the Bookworm of Gensan

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By Romel Regalado Bagares

It was fitting that  Gilbert Yap Tan’s last posts on Facebook were about  books – he owned hundreds and hundreds of them, from decades of collecting on sundry topics – as a writer, college professor and former journalist may be expected to. One from two weeks ago shows photos of books he had stacked all over his small  apartment in jumbled heaps, after yet another earthquake hit the city he loved, General Santos.  He was ok, he said, but expressed exasperation that he had to rearrange the books for the umpteenth time because of the constant rumbling of the not-so terra firma.

His collection is eclectic: from local and foreign graphic novels, to American potboilers, books on  Sen. Manny Pacquaio (whom he had interviewed and profiled for a local magazine), the late President Corazon Aquino, all manner of Rizaliana and Filipiniana, to the books by well-known American and other foreign poets and writers, to  business and social science titles. He chronicled this book collection in part in his blog “The Bookworm of Gensan,” on Blogspot.  His other blog on the same platform, “KnowRead/KnoWrite”,  he devoted to reading and writing. He had put up the two blogs to promote literacy, reading, and campus journalism.

Towers of books for company

“Yesterday, after the quake, some books fell on the path to my main door. Inside my home, some more book towers were toppled. It was a painstaking task of picking one book at a time to put the book towers back in place,” he said in a post he wrote on December 16.

Responding to suggestions from well-meaning friends that he donate his books so he would have more space in his apartment, he wrote back:“Now let me make this very clear:  I’ve lived with books almost all of my life. To suggest to me that I donate them bec ause I need the space is like me telling you to give away your lifetime partner because you need space. Tama ba yun?”  All that he was asking for is a little more time with his books before he parted with them, he said.

He had  actually planned to build  for his books a container van library on a spot in his small property at the city’s Morales Subdivision early this year, and open it to the community. The rising costs of building materials however, put the matter on hold.

And he provided that if his plans for the container van library fell through, the books will all go to the city’s public library. In fact, in 2015, he had already made an initial donation to the public library, consisting of 174 books from just his  journalism collection – a huge number of that kind, by any measure.

The US-based poet Rowena Torrevillas,  former director-in-residence of the famous Silliman University National Writers’ Workshop (SUNNW) founded by her late parents Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, wrote in response to his December 16 post: “Good for you, Gilbert. Bravo. I myself will always prize and honor the printed page over the books-on-screens. ( have an essay on this thought that I can send you digitally, if you’d like.)”


Gilbert in a Star Wars shirt after watching Episode IX  just a day  before he passed away in the company of friends

A writing fellow

Gilbert was a proud member of Batch ’89 of the SUNNW as a fellow for fiction. The list of fellows for that year is now a veritable who’s who of the contemporary Filipino journalism and literary firmament –Cynthia Lopez Dee, Danilo Francisco Reyes, Felino Garcia Jr., Jose Wendell Capili, Lakambini Sitoy, Luna Sicat-Cleto, Maria Jovita Zarate, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, Nenita Lachica, Ramon Boloron, Rex JMA Fernandez, Romulo Baquiran Jr., Timothy Wells, and VE Carmelo Nadera Jr.

Unrealized dream

Alas, he never did realize his dream.

Five days later, in the early evening of December 21 – but mercifully, while in the company of friends –  he suffered a  heart attack and was pronounced dead by doctors at the hospital. He saw Episode IX: The Rise of the Skywalker at the mall  the day before. He was wearing a Star Wars shirt when he passed on. He was only 63 years old. A life-long bachelor, he thrived in the company of his many friends, his immediate family, his godchildren, and his many nephews and nieces.

It was apparently his second heart attack; his first happened a couple of months earlier, which led to a short spell of depression, evident in his Facebook posts after his hospital stay.

He had also suffered a stroke in 2014, which led to his decision to finally stop decades of smoking. One can say  the decision to quit may very well have given him a longer lease on life than would otherwise have been possible.

But he clearly understood what that medical history meant. He prepared himself for it, first, by making the necessary arrangements so that his loved ones will not have to worry too much when the time came for him to go, and second, by telling  confidantes how to tidy things up when he is gone.

Weeks before, he sent  Dr. Alfie Custodio pictures of  him all smiles in the crematorium where he wanted to be cremated, and of the columbarium  where he wanted his ashes to be interred, when the inevitable happened. “I recoiled with horror when I saw the pictures,” said Dr. Custodio, a business professor at the Notre Dame Dadiangas University, where Gilbert earned his MBA.

One of the pictures was of the urn he would like his ashes to be carried in. He had already paid for all the funeral arrangements. Dr. Custodio  had been his student at MSU. He  had  also coached her in  high school for the National Schools Press Conference.  In graduate school, their roles were reversed. But by then they had  already become fast friends. Even so, Gilbert continued to be her writing mentor, who egged her no end to send her efforts at writing poetry to  workshops. ”I didn’t think he should have even given thought to it – we had an eye on future projects to work together on,” she said.


Gilbert at his MBA graduation, with his erstwhile student-turned-grad school professor, Dr.  Custodio

It was Dr. Custodio who  presided over Gilbert’s hooding ceremony when he finally graduated from graduate school  in 2016,  or a long 35 years after he entered it. Gilbert had also designated her as his “legacy contact” for his Facebook account, and she helped arrange the memorial services for Gilbert after his remains were cremated on December 23.

A high school awakening

Gilbert’s  late parents used to run a grocery store right across the city’s Freedom Park. It was named after him because he was then the only child.  At the age of 3, he could already read, taught by his grandmother and two aunts, who were all teachers.  “Lola subscribed yearly to Reader’s Digest and when the monthly issue was delivered by the postman, she would call me to sit by her side. She would point out to me the words she was reading,” he recalled in a blogpost. “My aunts would do the same when their turns came to read it. (Years later, she would give me a Reader’s Digest book on health and medicine for my high school graduation. She knew I wanted to become a medical doctor.)”

But he considered his sophomore English class under Mr. Roger Rebucan at the Notre Dame Dadiangas High School Boys’ Department as his intellectual awakening to the possibilities of the written word. “As our English teacher, he taught us a language that resonates with dynamism when used as a tool for self-expression. He was as sports-minded as he was an avid reader,” he wrote of his English teacher in an essay that won the “My Favorite Book” writing contest of the Philippine Star in 2005.  “Being not much of the sporty type due to my myopic eyes, I would read library books while keeping watch over the school bags and uniforms of those classmates who played in the field. I would often see Mr. Rebucan reading in between ballgames he was officiating, in the canteen while taking his snacks, in the faculty room when he had finished checking our papers, and in the parade grounds while waiting for the civic-military parade to start. I was drawn to him because we shared something in common – reading.”

An education in words under Martial Law

He was a high school junior  when Martial Law was declared by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In September this year, writing of his high school batch’s 50th year reunion, he recalled those days when parents spoke to their children about Martial Law’s unspoken evils in whispers, and a time “when paranoia became the order of the day.”

“Some batchmates, enrolled in a judo-karate club, talked about the janitor who suddenly disappeared,” he wrote in an essay for Rappler. The  fate of the janitor who did a disappearing act may well have been  his second introduction to the pleasures  and perils of the written word. The janitor, later identified as the award-winning poet, essayist and dramatist Emmanuel Lacaba, had left a comfortable perch in the academe in Manila, going underground in Mindanao to  fight the Marcos dictatorship. He was captured and summarily executed by the military  in 1976 in Davao del Norte.  Lacaba was also a Silliman writing fellow, Batch ’69.

Gilbert went on to write:

“Yes, we were ‘lucky’ to have been teenagers during the early years of Martial Law, and as we went to college, we saw the horrors and evils of the New Society and the military abuses. We have relatives, friends, and schoolmates who were caught and killed in the crossfire between the military and the rebels, became victims of abuse and torture, and disappeared without a trace. Martial Law indeed left an indelible mark in our lives as its survivors.”

Gilbert would only spend a year in college at the University of the Philippines Diliman because his family could not afford to keep him there.  He went back to Gensan and continued his college education at the Notre Dame Dadiangas College (now a university).

There, as a college sophomore, he became editor-in-chief of the campus publication, The Vox. He recalled that before the publication would see print, the Media Board in Davao City would go over each edition with a fine-toothed comb – his first brush with censorship under Martial Law. The experience would transform him into a fierce defender of press freedom and free expression.

Literary travel/travail

Gilbert was the first  General Santos City-born writer to have made it as a fellow in the 58-year history of the SUNWW, known as the most prestigious and the most exacting in the country. Indeed, in the long years when General Santos City was still a literary backwater, he soldiered on for that gentle madness of the finely-tuned word.

In those pre-social media, and very analog days, that meant travelling four hours by bus to Davao City on weekends, to see the eminent poet and fictionist Tita Lacambra-Ayala (otherwise known as the mother of famous singers Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander).  “She took me under her wing, egging me to drink several glasses of rum-coke while she read my stories,” he reminisced in a blog entry. “Half-drunk, I would listen as she critiqued my work. She would also regale me with her literary exploits. She would bring me to exhibits, poetry readings, meetings with the local literati like Lydia Ingle and Wenzel Bautista. I would help her out by selling sets of her Roadmap Series featuring the works of fictionists, poets and painters.”

The Ayala apartment along Quirino Avenue in what is now Duterte country “became my literary sanctuary,” he wrote.  “Joey and the rest of the brood went in and out of the house, planting a kiss on her cheek each time and surprising me with their calling her by her first name. Quite an unconventional set-up.”  It was there where a young Gilbert would also hobnob with the Davao literati, who gravitated around Ms. Ayala to seek her wise counsel on the state of the arts in the city.

These weekend mini-writing workshops Ms. Ayala would immortalize in a poem entitled “Counter-Point in Double Poem,” which she expressly dedicated to Gilbert. In this poem, she pays tribute to Gilbert’s literary travel and travail in these words: “some buses are longer/ than the bridges/and cannot/ make a turn –/ the roads are bordered/ with newtonian faults/where farther to/consider/ the edge of things?/ you are in their/continuous center/evolving platitudes/ wise and angry/ against this ravage of / violent/ abstractions…” The poem became part of an anthology of her  poems, “Camels and Shapes of Darkness in the Time of Olives,”  published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1998.

She passed away in January this year, at age 88.

In 1988, Gilbert’s story “Crimson Crescents” won first prize for April and the grand prize of the year in the Mr. & Ms. magazine love story contest for that year. I hazard to say that his literary achievements  paved the way for the current crop of young writers from the Southern Mindanao region now making their mark in the national literary scene.

As far as I know, Gilbert  also worked as a stringer for Manila-based newspapers in the early 80s. I recall that as a high school student in the mid-80s, I would look forward to his pieces for the Malaya newspaper, for which he submitted not just regular reportage but also extended bon mots on drivel journalists sometimes wrote in their practice of writing history in a hurry.

But it was teaching that consumed most of his professional life – first, at his college alma matter, and later on and until his early retirement last year, at the Mindanao State University campus in the city.

A writer’s generosity

Gilbert was generous with his talents. For three decades, he was a fixture in campus journalism conferences as a mentor to generations of campus journalists.  I was one of  hundreds of direct beneficiaries of his accumulated wisdom. I owe in part my eight year-stint as a newspaper reporter to a  1987 seminar at the Notre Dame Dadiangas College-High School Department that I had attended.

In retirement, he continued to contribute to campus journalism by serving as a seminar lecturer and regional secondary schools press conferences judge. Until his death, he was adviser of Panganduman, the city-based chapter of SOX Writers, an umbrella organization of writers in Southern Mindanao and neighboring areas. Under his tutelage, Panganduman organized  writing seminars featuring prominent national writers – a first for the province of South Cotabato, in many ways.

He relished no end the current flowering of many writer’  groups and events in the city and  neighboring towns, which he could only dream of in his younger years.

And he celebrated the founding a few years ago of the online Cotabato Literary Journal  by a younger (and already award-winning)  crop of writers as a watershed moment. The monthly journal, as its website says, “is a repository of the best works that writers from Cotabato Region have produced and a showcase as well of their best new works.”

The name hearkens to  the American colonial days, when what is now an area straddled by the provinces of South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, was called under only one name – the Empire Province of Cotabato. The journal would publish in its pages two of his pieces: an essay about a familiar haunting he had experienced one Christmas,  years after the death of his beloved mother, and his award-winning short story.

Oddly enough, the December 2019 edition of the journal carried contributions on the theme of “Narratives of Illness,” and  one of the issue editors, Isulan City-based prize-winning writer Jude Ortega, writes:

Gilbert Tan and Noel Pingoy, two of my fellow writers in the region, both had a stroke this decade, and they talked about the ordeal that they had gone through while we were having lunch one time. With prompt medical attention, their lives and bodies didn’t change much after the stroke—they just no longer had dreams anymore, which many people would find positive instead of negative—but the conversation was wedged in my subconscious.

Pingoy, the other issue editor who also happens to be a medical doctor, is a resident in the hospital where Gilbert was taken after his fatal heart attack. He arrived at the ER just after Gilbert was pronounced DOA by the young resident-on-duty.

In his introduction to the 40th issue of the journal, he writes of how Gilbert struggled with post-stroke recovery by writing about it constantly on social media. “He would often write about his stroke as if it were a metaphorical wound that needed incessant tending,” he says, adding that Gilbert, borrowing the first lines from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tide, considered his stroke  a “geography” – or even his “anchorage,” and his “port of call.” “That would define, to my mind, his daily battles and little victories in the years preceding his untimely death.”

He ends his essay with these words:

I had the good fortune of sitting beside Sir Gilbert at a local coffee shop three nights before his fatal heart attack. He greeted me with his customary warmth in between giving sagacious advice to, I assumed, his former students. I remarked that he particularly looked serene and content. He just smiled back. I will always carry that memory with me like a wound that cannot be healed. It has become in my appreciation of—and gratitude for—his life and death, a personal geography.’


 An unfinished project


GIlbert among friends, just hours before his fatal stroke

An unfinished project of Gilbert’s was a book on campus journalism he had been working on for some time. I remember him telling me about it over coffee at a mall during one Christmas holidays. I would try to prod him to finish the manuscript every now and then. A few entries in his reading and writing blog appear to refer to it.  I hope someone would  find the manuscript, and put the finishing touches to it  in his honor –   for the benefit of future campus journalists in Southern Mindanao and beyond.


A self-portrait from 2016, in the company of some of his books

Two books in my personal  library were Christmas gifts from him, given during my Christmas visits to our hometown – the first,  a critic’s take on W.H. Auden’s poetry, and second, essays on old age by the poet Donald Hall.  The second came in the middle of my own personal grief. That second gift is now doubly memorable, as he gave it to me just a few days after my father died on December 21, 2014, at the age of 81.

As I write this, I take out the book from its perch on my bookshelf, and, thinking of  their deaths on the same date but in different years, I wonder how any “ceremony of losses” Hall writes about in his book – including the faltering of one’s sight in old age, or brushes with  mortality – could really prepare those of us left behind for such sudden departures, for such unexpected griefs.

*photographs appearing in this tribute were provided by Dr. Custodio.

Gilbert is survived by his parents Napoleon Sr., (+) and Emelita (+), siblings Nellie, Willie, Napolito (+), Napoleon Jr., and Katherine, and nephews and nieces Keanu, Ken, Kerwin, Nerissa Joy, Nathalie Joan, Neya Jayne, Nena Julie, Neri Jesah, Nap, Claire, Judelyn, Jona, Maden, and Joseph Paulo.

Written by Romel

December 31, 2019 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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