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Of Pen and Sword, Interview Questions for José G. Paman

November 1, 2007

Arnis Self-Defense
Our intern, Leah Gordon, came up with a perfect set of interview questions for Blue Snake Books’ author José G. Paman. Thanks for your help Leah!
José responded to Leah’s questions thoughtfully, and at great length. Thank you José!

1. Your book is entitled Arnis Self-Defense. How did arnis evolve as a martial art? What is its connection to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines?

Arnis is the natural product of evolution brought about by succeeding generations of native Filipino practitioners who developed the techniques, put them to use, and modified them using lessons learned in actual combat. It has a very strong connection to the Spanish colonization of the islands, first, in that it was the art the natives used in defiance of the conquerors. There is also a notable link to the Spanish in that arnis absorbed European concepts and training methods from the invaders themselves. These would include the use of numbering systems to teach cutting and thrusting, the use of geometric designs to teach angulation, and the tradition of utilizing a short weapon like the dagger to complement the longer primary weapon such as the sword.

Endeavoring to effectively defeat an enemy requires one to be familiar with the enemy’s mindset, his techniques and his strategies. As a pragmatic art, arnis came to incorporate movements and applications not only from the Spaniards, but also from Americans and Japanese, who were in the country at one time or another as friend or foe. Practical techniques from various sources were thus adopted, but always with the idea of forging a system directly applicable to real conflict and with no ornamentation or ceremony.

2. Because arnis is so closely tied to Filipino history, would you characterize it as an exclusively Filipino martial art, or is it becoming more popular in other countries?

Although it started out as a Filipino combat system, it has been found its way to many other countries. Adherents everywhere, I believe, are attracted to the method because of its simple, no-nonsense approach to training and usage. It is a fundamental verity that one can immediately use an arnis technique that he learned just today. Elements of arnis have been incorporated in military Combatives and law-enforcement Defensive Tactics programs. It is equally useful for everyday, civilian self-defense.

3. Do you notice a difference in the popularity or functions of martial arts in the Philippines versus America?

I believe the motivations for learning the martial arts remain the same everywhere. Some might want to study them for health and fitness reasons. Some may be looking for a rewarding pastime. Others study them to get in touch with their “native roots” or alternately to research aspects of another culture. I feel that the overwhelming majority, nonetheless, study the arts to gain a method of self-protection. This could prove particularly crucial in today’s sometimes-explosive environment.

4. How does arnis compare to other martial arts like karate or taekwondo?

The most distinct contrast would have to do with the fact that arnis places weapons training before empty-hand training. The reverse is true in many mainstream arts like karate, judo, taekwondo and aikido, which typically teach weapons only to intermediate and advanced practitioners. As for fitness training, arnis demands about the same, or greater, level of commitment as the other related arts.

5. What are some general misconceptions about arnis?

There is the pervasive notion, particularly in Western society, that armed combat is by nature “dirty fighting.” Some may then see arnis as an unfair system of combat, as if fair play really figures in today’s combative environment. As a reflection of this frame of mind, there exist extensive laws restricting the carrying and use of weapons. This, incidentally, affects only law-abiding citizens and not the criminals themselves.

Certain people may hold the opinion that weapons are evil instruments. Taking an objective look, however, logically brings one to the conclusion that most implements are neutral, being neither good nor bad. A stick or a knife will not attack a human being by itself. Both have everyday uses beyond striking or cutting an opponent. A stick can be used as an aid in walking or to hold a car hatch open. Likewise, the knife can be used to slice vegetables, cut meat or open an envelope. It is the intention of the wielder that ultimately determines whether a certain object is utilized for “good” or “bad” purposes.

It has been my experience that, for legitimate self-defense purposes, weapons can enhance one’s chances of surviving an encounter. They could prove valuable against a physically larger attacker, a group of attackers, or someone who is armed himself, instances when barehanded defense is less ideal. The presence of a weapon itself, in fact, could act as a deterrent against a violent attack in certain cases. I must emphasize that arnis, as I learned it under Grandmaster Ernesto A. Presas in Manila, does not promote mayhem or a love of violence. It simply equips the practitioner with a viable means of survival, factoring in true-life conditions.

6. What drew you to martial arts? When did you begin practicing?

I was a very small and skinny kid and got my share of getting picked on. Because I was shy and reserved and was never into team sports, I got into some situations with guys wanting to “test” me during my early school years. Consequently, I became interested in disciplines like boxing and judo from an early age. My father boxed all his life, needing the skills growing up in the tough slum district of Tondo in Manila. My maternal uncle Nestor Goyena was the 1959 Philippine judo champion. Two cousins also practiced karate. From all these men, I picked up techniques on an informal basis.

My first formal martial arts instructor was Grandmaster Ernesto A. Presas, who established the Arjuken Karate Association in Manila in 1970. I studied karate and arnis in his school. While a brown belt there, I was also accepted into the Tong Hong, or Eastern Athletic Association, a kung-fu school that taught the ngo cho five ancestor system. The teacher there was Master Co Chi Po, a renowned fighter in Manila’s Chinatown. I trained at both gymnasiums simultaneously, being careful not to reveal the fact to each, until the late 1970s when my family and I moved to California. I continued my martial arts practice and studied jujitsu under Master Rod Goodwin in Sacramento as well. I now hold instructor degrees in arnis, karate and jujitsu.

7. You’re accomplished in many different methods of martial arts. Do you have a favorite style?

All the systems I have studied are actually great in the areas they specialize in. I like karate and kung-fu for their powerful strikes, jujitsu for its throws and grappling, and arnis for its weapons and overall utility. If I had to choose only one art, it would have to be arnis because it encompasses short, medium and long-range combat and incorporates both armed and unarmed components; a complete method.

8. What advice might you give to a beginner interested in learning about martial arts, or arnis specifically?

One of the most important things, I believe, is for someone to find a good teacher adequately skilled in his system and who is willing to teach his students properly. Finding a compatible teacher might include checking around, talking to people and sitting in on sessions.

Having started, I would suggest giving the training a little time. Few experts emerge out of a five-week program, how matter how talented the student. An initial personal commitment of six months would probably be good, if just to see whether one wants to continue on with a particular instructor or style.

9. Who is your target audience? Could a beginner pick up your book and learn arnis?

There is a wide target audience for the arnis book. I incorporated both basic and advanced information into the work that should prove enlightening to the reader at any level. The general history and introductory sections provide the backdrop against which arnis evolved. In the technical sections, I sought to incorporate crucial details to improve the practitioner’s understanding and delivery of the fundamental techniques. I am a stickler for the basics in any endeavor. I believe that with a proper grasp of the basics, one can eventually achieve mastery of whatever discipline he is studying.

10. You moved to California with your family after spending your formative years in the Philippines. Was it hard to adjust to your new life?

Our family went through the typical “immigrant” experience, I imagine. When we came to the U.S., my father had been in California for some four years. He wanted to “test” the waters before bringing all of us here. We actually came from a fairly comfortable existence in the Philippines, living in an exclusive development in Greater Manila. Coming here provided a case of culture shock. For instance, I had never held a job; I was going to college full-time courtesy of my grandparents, who were fairly well-off. After getting here, I had to work a variety of jobs like busing tables and washing dishes, doing janitorial work, parking cars, and working as a security guard. We experienced the struggle of seven people living in a two-bedroom apartment, of some of us having to sleep on a couch or an old army cot…not one night or one week but everyday, for months.

I would say it was probably also a little tougher for us then because there was not the “cultural awareness” prevalent today. As a result, we suffered some discrimination and essentially just had to bear it and keep going. My parents taught us, profoundly, not to dwell on the setbacks but to keep our eyes on the positive goals. I believe this made all of us stronger and tougher individuals in the end. All five of us siblings ended up in professional positions. My older sister is the chief of a government agency branch, a brother is a career military man, another sister is a teacher, and my youngest brother a graphic artist. I often tell my boys they’re fortunate because they don’t have to go through what my generation did, not too long ago.

11. Was your family the reason for your initial interest in martial arts? And, now that you have sons of your own, are they interested in martial arts?

As I’d mentioned, I had a deeply personal reason for my initial interest in the arts and that was, simply, not to get bullied or pounded. See, I was quiet and kept to myself and tended not to get involved in school yard conflicts. Kids around then saw me as an easy target. Curiously, a lot of this nonsense stopped after I started martial arts training. Most of the time, it may have been just the confidence I projected. There were a few times when I was forced into fights nonetheless, and the newly-learned skills helped me out.
After I gained some proficiency, I relied on the martial arts to defend and protect family members and friends. Many members, including my sons, have also studied the martial arts, perhaps because of my early involvement.

12. How did you get started writing?

I always enjoyed writing throughout my school years, from an early age on. I can recall, as a fourth-grader, staring at the huge collection of books at the school library and wondering how someone got picked to write a particular book. I wondered: Did you have to belong to an exclusive club? How did the selection process go? I saw a form of immortality in writing in that, long after authors passed away, they lived on through their written works.

I actually tried to get published as early as 1978 when, fresh from moving from overseas, I wrote a query letter to the editor of a martial arts magazine in L.A. As it turned out, he did not even bother to answer, and it was a major letdown for me. I decided to try again much later, in 1987, when a karate magazine put out a notice soliciting articles from first-time writers for possible publication. I sent out an article, they liked it, and one project led to another and to gradually bigger projects.

In 1995, after I had published three books and several dozen articles, I went back to school to take three college semesters of Writing for Publication under Bud Gardner, a major driving force behind the landmark Chicken Soup for the Soul series. This was to learn how to do it right and to grasp what I may have missed in teaching myself how to do it. When Bud found out about the writing I had done, he joked, “And you want to take this class now? You should be teaching it!”

13. Did your interest in writing always intersect with your involvement in martial arts, or have they evolved separately from each other?

In the beginning, I wrote exclusively about martial arts-related topics. I think this goes with the axiom that we write about what we know most about. It was natural for me to write about them when I got my start. Recently, I branched off into fiction writing. I just published an article for a paranormal site and am working on a horror story as well. I expect that the main theme of my writing, however, will always have to do with the martial arts.

14. You’ve written several other books prior to Arnis Self-Defense. Does the writing process get easier as you go?

It has gotten easier in the sense that I know the essential steps involved in packaging the material and submitting it to editors for review. After the first few times, it became routine for me and I just have to observe certain protocols.

The process of actually writing the drafts, however, remains an enjoyable challenge of sorts. English is not my primary language. This is not an excuse, but a reason, that I have to pay close attention to basic elements such as syntax, spelling and punctuation; to proper tense; to subject-verb agreement and to cohesiveness, probably to a greater extent than some. For this reason, I am not able to produce material that quickly. I have to test, prod, re-review and edit drafts numerous times before I feel comfortable about submitting them.

15. Do you have any other books in the works right now?

Yes, a horror story, as I’d said, and two martial arts volumes, which are both in the planning stages.

16. Do you have any advice for people who are pursuing similar dreams to yours (writing or martial arts, or both)? What was your inspiration, or what helped you to accomplish as much as you have in life?

My advice on both endeavors, or any other, for that matter, is to simply go for it. If you really want to do something, you can! It was out of the desire to have my work published that I was able to get my writing out. I had no formal training for it when I first started writing for the magazines. I did have a good background in English, enjoying literature all along, but I was clueless on how to prepare the submissions, take photographs, caption the photos or write a query letter.

You could say I initially learned through “on the job training;” by doing research, learning from mistakes and so on. I think that living in the U.S. also helped me immensely because I was able to access valuable written information and come into contact with many talented writers and editors who helped me along the way.

17. You’ve worked a variety of interesting jobs, not least of which includes investigating identity theft. What was your most interesting job?

My most interesting job would have to be working in a parking lot in Downtown Sacramento in 1981. There, I met people from all walks of life, from lobbyists to attorneys to priests, office workers, security guards and street dwellers. In that capacity as a parking attendant, there were always folks stopping by to talk to me, sharing what they had going on at the time. Some would be around for a few minutes while others stayed for long periods of time. That job was never boring. I got a dose of reality then in that people are essentially the same no matter what their station in life. Everyone I met wanted many of the same things: food, shelter, peace of mind, contentment. That job was, coincidentally, where I met the man who would give me my first break in state service.

18. When you started out in martial arts, did you know you wanted to be an instructor eventually, or did that come later?

I only wanted to defend myself in the early days of my martial arts training but with the passage of time, the instructors at the Arjuken, my original school, asked if I would help teach the beginning classes. As I developed a greater command of the various techniques and concepts, and received black belt promotions, I attended and graduated from one of the school’s first instructor programs. I then served as an assistant instructor at a university P.E program. I also initiated the first California branch of the Arjuken after I moved to this state.

Although I enjoy my personal practice and research of the martial arts the best, teaching is also a rewarding activity. I believe that there are mutual benefits involved in imparting information to another: when you teach someone else, you are also teaching yourself. It makes me slow down, revisit the fundamentals, and consequently improve my fluency further.

19. Do you still consider yourself a student of martial arts? As you grow older, are you still learning new things?

I will always be a student of the martial arts. Not only the ones I have formal training in or personally prefer, but all systems I have access to. Students would be foolish not to take advantage, particularly with today’s technology that provides information on once-secret and exclusive martial arts styles. I believe that the broader view we have of the arts, the better practitioners – and writers – we become.

20. Both writing and martial arts are somewhat solitary activities. Have you noticed any other overlaps between your primary interests?

Both are indeed solitary endeavors, and I think they fit me personally. As I’d said, I never got into team sports, and I still am not. I am not the most “social” person, either. While many folks I know seem to always have to be doing something in the company of a group, I feel that my time is best spent studying, researching, training and practicing.

The other overlaps that come to mind would be the disciplinary and contemplative aspects of both activities. To be a good writer and also a good martial artist requires one to settle down, to get away from life’s frantic pace, and to really concentrate on building the requisite skills to achieve progress. Above all this, both the discipline of writing and the practice of the martial arts have afforded me a much-needed calm amidst the storm of everyday life.

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