By my lights, he was the best writer of my generation, but hardly anyone today knows of him. His original name, as it appeared in his first published work, was Morli Dharam. Then, he changed it to Anthony Morli – expunging “Dharam,” his father’s family name. His mother was Filipino; I met her only once. Morli – that is what we called him. He lived in Manila, but he never told me where, and he never invited me to his house.
He enrolled at the University of the Philippines, but I don’t think he finished college. Among my contemporaries, he was perhaps the most well-read. He was aware of the latest literary texts and, most of all, the latest plays and musicals on and off Broadway. He loved theater, and for a few years, he wrote theater and cultural reviews for the Manila Times where, in the 1950s, I was with the newspaper’s Sunday Magazine staff.
I knew Morli, however, before I joined the Times. When I was with the Varsitarian, the University of Santo Tomas student paper, and also already contributing stories to the national magazines, I was introduced to the writers of my generation through my membership in the College Editors Guild.
Those were the days when Diliman writers – Morli went with them – and UST writers knew each other. I remember only one story by Morli, “Dada” – an evocative family tale dominated by his uncle. It was superbly crafted, reminiscent of the finest English writing and refined Faulknerian idiom. I had to pause while reading it to appreciate its exquisite complexity.
Morli was very candid in his approach to my work. He said it was simple; I retorted, simplicity. My stories always had structured plots. He said they were obvious. I said I wanted it that way, to be clearly understood, even when they had ambiguous and multiple endings. Together with the poet Fred Bunao, we often stayed out late in Diliman, at Luisa’s, a coffee shop in Quiapo, or in the greasy restaurants on Florentino Torres where most of the Manila papers were. All of us knew from the very start that Morli was gay, this was in his manner, but he never bothered with us. It was the tall mestizos, the Caucasians, that attracted him. Once the three of us were at the Manila Hotel for a cultural event, and a couple of American sailors passed our table on their way to the men’s room. Morli followed them. Shortly after, he rejoined us, his face bloodied.
Sometime soon after that incident, Morli told me that he was getting married. At the time, same sex marriage was not legitimized and gay relationships were not flaunted. Morli did get married. He invited me to lunch with his wife; I was shocked – she looked like his mother.
I did not notice Morli’s departure. I didn’t even know he had left the Philippines. Then, I received a letter from him. He was in New York pursuing the American Dream. Now, all that talent will bloom. I waited, but Morli, in all those years, was quiet. After Martial Law, I was able to go to New York several times and, of course, I always saw him. He never invited me to his apartment and was evasive when I asked him what he was doing. He told me he had converted to Judaism. He said that at some social party, someone had called him “Christ killer.” I understood why he converted; Jews dominated New York’s cultural domain.
When my wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in San Francisco in 1999, Morli came. I was very moved. When I had my first meeting with my Random House editor, Samuel S. Vaughan, I invited Morli and the other Filipino writer in New York, Eric Gamalinda. I had hoped my introducing them to Sam will eventually help them. Morli gave a cassette tape of the musical he hoped would make it in Broadway. I listened to it only once. I don’t even remember where I placed it. I am no judge of operas or musicals the way he was, although I’ve seen quite a few. I recall the singing was accompanied by piano – it wasn’t memorable.
Back in Manila about ten years ago, I received a letter from a New York lawyer asking me if I knew any living relative of Anthony Morli. I told him I didn’t. I think he had left some property. And so, every so often, I would remember Morli – the sensitive and brilliant writer; if he didn’t leave, if he stayed on, surely, as talented as he was, he would have been recognized. For sure, he wouldn’t have lived too comfortably like most writers, but he wouldn’t have been poor. He was industrious, multi-faceted; he wrote the English libretto to Felipe Padilla’s opera, “Noli Me Tangere.” He told me he was going to write plays, but the allure of America mesmerized him. Morli’s flight to America was not, of course, unusual, particularly for colonized peoples. Writers from the former colonies of England and France migrate to these countries seeking not only a better life, but recognition. But not just for this reason; they immigrate seeking freedom, too, from their countries where they are shackled by their tyrannical leaders.
They immigrate also because it is fashionable – the hegira of American writers to Paris – the Lost Generation in the 1920s and 1930s. Or simply, they leave because they crave competition. New York is the world’s cultural capital. Central Park, the New York public library, etc., all year round are alive with cultural presentations. If they make it there, it means they have reached the very top even if they don’t win the Nobel. But what about those who don’t leave? I remember the Russian novelist, Boris Pasternak, and the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, braving Stalin’s lash and prevailing.
I, too, wanted to leave during the Marcos regime; in fact, I went to America and found two job opportunities, but I didn’t take them, convincing myself they didn’t pay enough. I was lying to myself. I returned because I knew that I would be bored in America. I had already worked abroad and didn’t really write anything. My roots, I realized, were too deep to be severed. Besides, I wanted to see how Marcos would end. I did not want to be lost like Morli in the gilded labyrinths in the land of milk and honey. This is not so horrible a fate, because being lost in America can be very comfortable. But look around us, at the many Filipinos who are striving, succeeding and prevailing. But alas! They are lost in their own country.