Traveling places and knowing people through creative nonfiction with Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo. “From these precious interludes, we emerge sane and serene, and able to take up again—cheerfully and gallantly—whatever burdens are our lot in this lifetime.” – “Pampahaba ng Buhay”, Passages: Selected Travel Essays (2008)

It’s as if time had stopped when the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the Philippines in 2020. Schools and workplaces eventually emptied out and life had changed for everybody. All had to adapt to the new changes that we must be accustomed to to keep up with life. For most, there was nowhere else to go but home where we now spent most of our time working, studying, and living, losing our sense of place and time. Being stuck at home has made us miss the outside world and the freedom we once had to roam about, see the sights, or spend time with friends and relatives. Even so, one seeks solace in books, transporting the reader to places far from where they are, introducing them to people they’ve never met before. This is the magic that Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s creative nonfiction brings: the spirit of adventure, right at one’s fingertips.

In her years of travelling around the world and being away from the Philippines, she had coped with her situation by going to a bookshop that carried English titles. She bought books about the place she was in, written by both its own writers and foreigners. Aside from reading, she wrote her reflections, recollections, and memories in a journal she called “Tania”, her best friend and travelling companion. During that time, she had sought comfort in books and in writing. If one wishes to find an escape or to take a break from reality, one may find it in literature, especially now in these trying times.

The consistent essayist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo was born on August 21, 1944. She is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines and the director of the Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies at the the University of Santo Tomas. In UP, she previously served as the Vice President for Public Affairs, director of the UP Press, and coordinator of the Department of English and Comparative Literature’s Creative Writing program. She was also a previous director of the UST Publishing House. The multi-awarded writer is widely known for her creative nonfiction, who is considered a pioneering writer for the genre, having published over 40 books throughout her literary career, including short stories, novels, literary criticism, and creative nonfiction.

“Historically speaking, people were already writing essays, even after the war. […] Even when they were writing creative writing pieces on the side, nagsusulat sila sa mga dyaryo, mga babasahin,” explained Prof. John Jack Wigley, the chair for the Department of Literature at the Faculty of Arts and Letters in UST. “Pero si Jing kasi, [she] developed it. […] Consistent siyang nagsusulat ng libro.” Married to a UN Ambassador, Hidalgo traveled a lot, visiting places like Beirut, Burma, Lebanon, America, among others. She wrote many travel essays about her life overseas, with her husband and her family. This gave birth to several creative nonfiction collections about her travels. “Si Jing […] naging consistent siya doon sa CNF. […] She wrote two novels, and she wrote collections of short stories, pero mas nakilala siya sa kanyang CNF,” Prof. Wigley emphasized. Other than consistently writing creative nonfiction, she also broke new ground in her genre for being a woman writer. Most writers were usually men, and women wrote mostly in fiction. She set herself apart from other women of her time who commonly wrote novels or short stories by writing nonfiction.

Years of literary repertoire Having published over 40 books, one cannot really question the extensive work that Hidalgo has made. As a fictionist, she has published two novels and several short story collections, some of which are already out of print. Her prose is detailed, capturing the setting and describing the characters with great precision. As an essayist, she has compiled her travel essays in several collections. Each narrative gives the reader a vivid image of the lands she has been to, as if taking readers on an adventure with her. As a critic, she has published many papers in regards to Philippine fiction in English, writing fiction, and women writing, contributing much to literary studies. She had also served as an editor to many literary anthologies. With her contribution over the years, one cannot refute that she is an important figure in the literary community, especially in creative nonfiction. She developed the genre in the Philippines, paving the way for the writers who would follow her footsteps.

If one wishes to stay the course, to travel the lands and meet the people whom she became fond of, here is a recommended reading list of Hidalgo’s nonfiction.

  1. Passages: Selected Travel Essays (UST Publishing House, 2008) “Passages” is just one of Pantoja Hidalgo’s many travel essay collections. It is an anthology of her travels abroad which spans 15 years. The book gives the reader a good variety of narratives about Hidalgo’s experience in living in different countries and encountering its people, from Asia, to Europe, to the Middle East, and to America. 
  2. Coming Home (Anvil Publishing, 1997) This book is about the places that Hidalgo has visited after coming back to the Philippines after living abroad for many years. It shows the nostalgia and reflections she has upon her homecoming. She writes in her Preface that it was a “coming home to all that I missed while I was away, to all that I value—old friends, old books, old haunts.” 
  3. Looking for the Philippines: Travel Essays  (UP Press, 2010) “Looking for the Philippines” is part travel essay and part memoir, where Hidalgo revisits the cities she first encountered earlier in life. Her narratives combine her observations and recollections with insights drawn from her readings and interactions with people who declare these cities their home. 
  4. Six Sketches of Filipino Women Writers (UP Press, 2011) This book contains character sketches of prominent women writers, including Merlie Alunan, Sylvia Mayuga, Marra P.L. Lanot, Barbara Gonzalez, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela, and Rosario Cruz Lucero. “Six Sketches” gives readers a peek into the lives of these well-known writers, how they have stayed the course, and what made them continue writing. 
  5. The Thing with Feathers: My Book of Memories (UST Publishing House, 2017) Hidalgo’s memoir on her travels and writing were originally Facebook notes, which includes the conversations she had with those who commented their thoughts and sentiments. This book gives people more insight on this distinguished writer. Readers learn tidbits about her life, dreams, joys, sorrows, love, and loss, as well as her thoughts on reading and writing.Despite the somewhat chaotic humdrum of life, may one continue to find comfort in books, to seek the solace it brings and the excitement and joy it evokes. May you find yourself immersed in Hidalgo’s work, in the adventures and the people along the way, even in the safety of your own home.