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July 02, 2013

SILLIMAN UNIVERSITY CULTURAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

Elsa Martinez Coscolluela is an award-winning poet, playwright, and fictionist. She graduated with AB and MA degrees in Creative Writing from Silliman University. She was also Miss Silliman 1964. Later, she was Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of St. La Salle, and retired in 2010 after thirty-two years of service. Upon retirement, she was conferred the rank of Professor Emeritus and was designated Special Assistant to the President for Special Projects, a post that she continues to hold. During her term as VPA, she founded the Negros Summer Workshops with film Director Peque Gallaga in 1990, and the IYAS Creative Writing Workshop in 2000, in collaboration with Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Dr. Marjorie Evasco and the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center of De La Salle University, Manila. She writes poetry, fiction, drama, and filmscripts in English. She has published a book of poetry, Katipunera and Other Poems. Several of her works have been anthologized.  As a writer, she is best known for her full length play, In My Father’s House, which has been produced here and in Japan, Singapore, San Francisco and New York. She was inducted to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1999 and is the recipient of several awards from the CCP, Free Press, and the Philippine Centennial Literary Competition. She continues to work at the University of St. La Salle where she manages several special projects and directs projects for the Eduardo Cojuangco Foundation. She was married to the late Jose Orlando Coscolluela of Bacolod City, with whom she has three sons: Bumpy, Johnny and Jacko; and four grandsons: Joco, Iñigo, Santi and Quinan.

What was the inspiration behind In My Father’s House?

While I was growing up, my parents hardly ever spoke about the war. When the topic would come up, they would speak in general terms about what a difficult time it was: the scarcity of food and medicines, the terrifying air raids, homes and properties being sequestered, and people disappearing or just found dead in ditches. It was a climate of want and fear. We knew that Papa fought in the war and was a member of the USAFE, but he did not elaborate on this.

When I got married and moved to Bacolod. I learned that my father-in-law was a Death March survivor, but again, no one really spoke much about the war.

Then in one of my parents’ visits to Bacolod, both Papa and Daddy started talking about the war, exchanging some of their personal experiences, as well as that of their families and friends. At the end of the visit, Papa asked me to write their story. While I was writing the play and doing historical research, my parents visited my brother Danny and his family in California. Papa had a stroke and soon passed away, without ever having read the play I wrote at his behest.      

Thus, this is essentially the story of my father, and my father-in-law’s families, and whenever this play would be produced, people would tell me that this is their family’s story, as well.

What was your student life like at Silliman?

College was fun. I majored in Creative Writing, first under the mentorship of Dr. David Quemada, and then the Tiempos. Our professors demanded much of us, so we were almost always reading and writing papers, aside from creative work. The fun side was that the Creative Writing and Drama Departments worked closely together, so we hung around Amiel Leonardia’s numerous stage productions, serving as script girls, goffers, make-up artists, costume managers, or just plain “miron.” Years later, in hindsight, I realized that this was where I learned to construct plays, develop an ear for dialogue, create character, and take conflict to an intense, or quiet closure. And then I had my close friend Bobby Villasis; we were both learning how to write at the same time, and would often test plots, storylines, and dialogue on each  other.  So my playwriting skills were honed by two friends: Amiel and Bobby.

Are you primarily a poet, playwright, or fictionist?

I guess I am primarily a poet, then a playwright. I struggle hardest when writing fiction. My themes are diverse: exile and alienation, loss and mourning, celebrating life and children, political issues, gender issues, a lot of historical material.

What idea did you want to explore in In My Father’s House?

I guess I just wanted to explore the issue that split many families apart during the war: the notion of who we recognize as “heroes” fighting for the country, our perception of “traitors” who willingly or under duress collaborated with the Japanese for either personal gain, or cowardice, or because they believed they were mitigating what would have been worse atrocities inflicted upon family and society; the pains of dispute and separation, and eventual loss; and the idea that there is no excuse for war.

What are your hopes about the Dumaguete production of In My Father’s House?

The play has been produced in other countries, in Manila and Bacolod, but never before in Dumaguete where it is set. Now that Silliman University is producing it here, I feel very gratified, as if the story itself is coming home.

It is often said that so far, this is the only major play about the War and the occupation years, ever written. I don’t know if this is still true. But what remains true is that almost everyone who has watched it says that this story resonates with their family’s experiences during the war years, both told firsthand by those who survived that period, or retold down the second and third generations.

It is my hope that audiences in Dumaguete will find the same resonance as well, and find significance and value in its retelling.