Remembering Erma

By N.S. Villaflor
Illustration: Enrico P. Santisas

 

ERMA M. Cuizon passed on last November 9, leaving behind a body of work that secures her place in Philippine literature. Apart from anthologies and numerous SunStar Weekend issues that she edited, Ma’am Erma’s published works include a couple of essay collections, a book of short stories, and two novels, one of which was written in collaboration with fellow distinguished women writers. Often restrained and subdued, her writing that spanned decades spoke succintly to Cebuanos from different generations, a voice of reason in a milieu that grew increasingly cacophonous by the day.

To younger writers who had the privilege of knowing their beloved Ma’am Erma, her influence extends beyond the essays and stories she had penned. To them, Ma’am Erma will always be the soft-spoken mentor who dispensed motherly advice, always treating them as sons and daughters of the written word. This is how they remember Ma’am Erma Cuizon:

“Erma always had a dignified way about her. We were young and rowdy, and sometimes went overboard with our antics in the office. She rarely made a ruckus about our behavior, just an occasional ‘psssssst’ or ‘ahem’ from her own little corner of the office. And we were quick to get back to work, or made it appear to do so.

Erma was like a cool aunt who had to watch over us kids. She allowed us to let loose, yet had a way of steering everything back on course without making us feel that she was pissed.

She liked things in a certain way: the writing, the photographs, the layouts. She would send back our copy with her comments scribbled on the margins of our manuscripts and we’d grumble back to our desks to check our notes, call our subjects for follow up questions or start rewriting. And she just sat at her corner not minding our bruised egos. And when break time came she’d just blurt out, ‘mangaon ta.’ as if nothing happened.

She taught me to always get the other side of the story. To look at a subject from many perspectives, and to write a balanced narrative. Perhaps when you are young you are so caught up with your own frame of mind and your version of stories, you become full of it. And Erma always pushed us to expand our perspectives and focus at the same time.

And now looking back, I finally understand her demeanor. I realize that it is from long quiet pauses that wisdom comes from. And from it Ma’am Erma earned a lot to share to us through her writings and her own quiet moments. Having the chance to work with her was one of my life’s greatest blessings.

Ma’am Erma will always have a special place in my heart.” — Myke Tatung Sarthou, Chef, Culinary Writer, TV Celebrity & SunStar Columnist (Former Writer & Photographer, SunStar Weekend)

“If ‘the style is the man’— or, the woman, in Erma Cuizon’s case — such sense of aplomb holds true about her both as a human being and as a writer. The austerity of her prose and her no-frills narrative may as well speak of the way she comes to terms with people (particularly the writers she nurtured in one way or another in the professional course of her creative life). Not prone to broad and loud gestures, Ma’am Ermz (as we fondly called her) exemplified how to stay unruffled even in the madding crowd of writers at their wits’ end over impending deadlines. There was always something unhurried about her — pretty much the way she was spartan with her words, spoken or written. Take it easy but steady, kiddos. Or so she may as well have reminded us. Yes, to carry through one’s task ‘bird by bird’ (the way she took her cue from one of her favorite writers, Anne Lamott). She was tough that way, but ever so gently.” — Michael Obenieta, Poet (Former Editor, Sunstar Weekend)

“To remember Ma’am Erma is to also remember her writing. While working with her on the Sunstar Weekend magazine (it was a full Sunday magazine then), I would edit all the articles and found her column, Bird by Bird, as one of the easiest to edit. It was obvious that she had thought well not only about what she was writing but also how she was writing about it. Each word was measured not only for its meaning but also for its sound. Despite our age gap and her many years of writing and editing experience ahead of me, she remained open to any comment I had then on her column. Her approach on her column-writing as well as her openness to feedback extended to the short stories she also penned. Whenever we talked about writing, Ma’am Erma would often say she was no poet. My reply then as well as now: what I know for sure is she knew how to make her words sing.” — Delora Sales-Simbajon, Online Writer (Former Associate Editor, Sunstar Weekend)

“Ma’am Erma wrote my recommendation letter for Silliman Writers Workshop back in 2014. I didn’t know a lot of writers at that time but Ma’am Erma and I had been taximates after attending poetry readings together, and I’d like to think we became friends after that.

She lent me books including her collection of short stories that she only had one remaining copy of. And just like her stories, she had a quiet way of encouraging the younger generation to write. She was never one to criticize or mould, uncomfortable perhaps with the idea of being a writing personality. I always felt she would rather concentrate on the writing itself. Perhaps that’s why her work invited a second reading because it was egoless and always prioritized the integrity of the piece. She embodied someone whose purpose was found in the pen.

She seemed surprised then when I asked her to write a letter for the workshop, not marking herself as a notable figure in writing. She gave me a handwritten note instead of a printed copy. I liked it so much, I kept the copy, retyped it and asked her to sign again. She’d forget who I was from time to time over the years. I though haven’t forgotten her.” — Johanna Michelle Lim, Travel Writer & Creative Director

“What I admire most about Ma’am Erms is her dedication to her craft. If there is one soul that can be proclaimed as Writer, it will be hers. I met her when I joined WILA and her support to young female writers like myself is untiring; and, just like her prose, gracious. Her quiet and unassuming leadership opened so many opportunities for our works to be published and read. The last time we saw each other was on the stairs of SunStar Cebu. I felt a bit sad when she did not recognize me. I moved closer to her then she said my name and laughed, her nimble and demure laugh.” — Karla Quimsing, Poet & Craft Artist

“As a former designer of SunStar Weekend, I had the opportunity to work with Erma Cuizon. This had also given me the chance to read her column every week, where I got to know her inner self, her way of thinking, and her philosophy in life. One thing I like about her writing is that she could easily transform a heavy subject into a light, relatable read. Her writing is such a breeze — and I mean it in a positive way. And which is also true in her fictional works. She had a gentle soul, and her writing style reflects this undercurrent.” — Adonis Durado, Knight Fellow at Ohio University, Chief Creative Officer & Poet (Former Designer, SunStar Weekend)

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