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a blog-tribute by a.a.
Filipino English: Literature as we think it
The author delivered this keynote lecture at the Conference on "Literatures in Englishes," National University of Singapore.
First, let me thank Prof. Edwin Thumboo for my presence here.
Natives often take for granted the icons in their midst, living as we do with them. It is often outsiders who notice them – and I must now, as that outsider who appreciates Singapore, who has watched this city state achieve its stature through the years, pay homage to Edwin whom I have known since the Sixties. I salute him as Singapore’s foremost cultural guru not just as a persevering educator but as an innovative poet, critic and impresario who has helped put this island nation on the map.
I will mention several authors and their work. Some of them are universally known. As for the Filipino authors, their currency is no longer limited to the Philippines, for some are published internationally. I also mention some of my work, to illustrate how my reading of English literature affected my imagination. English, after all, has become the lingua franca of the world, and for us in the region, the medium of communication. But more than this, we get to know a people better not through their history books but through their literature.
A bit of background on our literatures. Before the Spaniards came in 1521, five indigenous scripts were used by the early Filipinos although we were not known by that name for we were then, as now, many tribes on many islands. Two of such scripts are still in use, one by a group on the island of Palawan, and another by the Mangyans on the island of Mindoro. A word about Mangyan poetry – it is not the work of just one poet but a community effort for soon enough, a stanza is added to it, and the new stanza, if accepted by the group, becomes part of the poem that is recited by the community. The Mangyan script, like the other indigenous scripts, is phonetic.
The major tribes had their own epics. One of the most durable is the Darangen of the Maranaws. She has not been accorded the honor she deserves for what Sr. Delia Coronel did was translate this epic into English – several volumes that will now endure for, like so many folk epics, many are no longer chanted as the old people who know them pass away. It is one of the duties of Filipino scholarship to record them now.
The continuity in our literary tradition lies in our vernaculars, what is written by the writers in the major language groups, Tagalog, Cebuano and Ilokano.
Our Spanish literature flourished during the 19th century, and all but disappeared in the 20th century when the Americans invaded my country in 1898 and gave Filipinos a universal education in English, which the Spaniards did not with Spanish. The victorious American troops became the first English teachers and we came to recognize the public schools as their best legacy to us. I have been using English since I was six years old. When will it also fade away?
I like repeating this story for it illustrates how a writer loses a language and gains another. Like Prof. Thumboo who speaks Teochiu but writes in English, I also speak Ilokano and write in English. I am from the northern part of my country. We Ilokanos are a hardy breed, I like to brag that we are the most industrious of all the Filipino tribes, and like the Scots, we are also the stingiest. My tribe inhabits that narrow strip of coastal plain in Northern Luzon facing the China Sea. We are also known to be very patient, mindful of our own affairs. Because of our limited land resource, many have migrated – about 80 percent of the Filipinos in Hawaii are Ilokano, and the majority of Philippine immigrants on the American West Coast are Ilokanos.
My story happened some 40 years ago or so. By that time, I had worked abroad for several years, and had written entirely in English four novels and many short stories.
So here I was in my hometown as the guest speaker at a conference of Ilokano writers. They had asked me to lecture on the craft of fiction. The sponsoring organization — GUMIL — is one of the largest writers groups in my country, with branches in the United States and the Middle East.
It was very refreshing to listen to Ilokano flowing all over the place, to understand every word, every nuance. Then, it was my turn to speak and confidently, I started with the archaic and flowery greetings which I had not forgotten. But as I went on, although what I wanted to say was crystal clear in my mind, I couldn’t articulate it – the Ilokano words wouldn’t shape no matter how hard I tried.
I was helpless, enervated by an awful feeling of inadequacy which I had never felt before. I had become a stranger to my own language. I reverted to English which all of them understood for, as a matter of fact, most Filipinos have a working knowledge of English. The words then came smoothly and crisply.
My early education included the Greek myths, the poems of Longfellow, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. We were made to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address, the slogans of the American ethos like "Give me liberty or give me death." Then, on my own, I discovered Herman Melville, Thoreaux, Emerson, and later on F. Scott Fitzgerald, onward to Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and on to Borges and Neruda, Soseki and Akutagawa, Brecht all in English translation, the whole exhilarating world of literature in English that included Rabindranath Tagore, and of course, our very own, the Ilokano writer, Manuel Arguilla before whom, at our National Library reading room, I used to sit but was too shy to tell him I was reading and admiring him. This was in 1941 when I was a high school senior.
In one generation, by the late twenties and early thirties, we were already producing a literature in English that could equal the best short fiction anywhere – the stories of Paz Marquez Benitez and Paz Latorena, to name just a couple.
By the thirties, our writers were completely at home with English, and in that period, a major literary debate took place, a debate which dates back to the ancient Greeks – literature, and its social function. This debate continues to this very day although no longer in such hortatory terms.
As a reminder, maybe we should digress a bit to this vestigial theme. For those of us in Asia whose traditions are different, in our pre-colonial societies, what was the function of the storytellers? The chanters of epics. The keepers of the faith and of tribal memory? Were they also possessors of arcane talismans that gave them power? Were they guardians of morals? Were they teachers? And today, are writers modernizers? Do we believe as some Westerners do that the pen is mightier than the sword? Have we contributed a stone to the skyscrapers of our cities, or as in my country, have we hastened its decay? After all, as our recent past has shown, so many gladly served the dictator Marcos and legitimized his plunder of our country. Ponder these questions for they are central to our existence.
There will always be writers who are flotsam, adrift and uninvolved with their own societies. We who write in a language not our own, in a sense, automatically become exiles whether we live or not in our own countries. This sense of exile is more pronounced in those who have imbibed in their consciousness those attitudes prevalent in the colonizer, attitudes which condemn the native culture as inferior, which distances them from the affectionate embrace of community and nation.
Rizal who wrote in Spanish was, therefore, a Spaniard, and Nick Joaquin who wrote in English, who said that all the good things in Filipinas were brought by Spain, was an American Hispanophile but both were thoroughly enamored with our country’s history, Nick in the Filipino’s celebration of a pagan past. And NVM Gonzalez and Manuel Arguilla – both wrote in English and reflected in their work the agrarian anxieties; NVM, having spent years in America, was entirely Americanized in his literary views; and Manuel Arguilla, influenced by proletarian American literature of the Great Depression, communed with the Filipino masa in passionate brotherhood.
The most pathetic of the exiles was the poet Jose Garcia Villa who, in the Thirties, blazed through our literary firmament with his clever and charming poetry which was not Filipino. He was seduced by the cultural exuberance of New York which he refused to leave. And yet others who clamor for a Filipino revolution in the safety of America, wallowing in American largesse.
In 1945, during a brief stint in the American Army, I amassed paperbacks that the Americans discarded after reading. I mulled over the novels of William Faulkner, his prolix prose which I soon imitated. His literary geography, his Yoknapatawpha County impressed me, reminded me of Rizal’s own literary territory. Both gave me the idea for a series of novels, also set in a geography such as Faulkner’s and Rizal’s, but more focused, with characters related to one another not so much by sanguinity, but by plot.
During the same period, I read the Steinbeck novels; they have a strong sense of place, as did Richard Lewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley. Steinbeck’s least known novel, The Pastures of Heaven, is about a small town and how a wayward bus stalls into it. I brought to mind my own boyhood; I could also use my own hometown as a setting for my novel Tree but that the stories should be interrelated. Then Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and Albert Camus’ The Plague; they impinged upon me the need for an overriding theme. I looked around, turned inward, to our own tortured past; it was there like sacred parchment – our unending, even futile search for social justice and a moral order.
In citing these readings, I am deracinated, too, just as Rizal, Nick Joaquin, Manuel Arguilla and NVM Gonzalez were. But we achieved kinship with our vernacular writers whose defining work, as the cultural critic Bienvenido Lumbera stated, is characterized by stern social criticism. With them then, we are that continuum which strengthened the fragile pillar of our literary tradition and identifies us as Filipinos and not as aliens in our own land.
A friend had urged me to write finally a happy story with joyous circumstance and God knows I have searched for that particular milieu, for that fiesta atmosphere that will suffuse my fiction so that my readers will be elated rather than depressed. But everywhere I turn in my unhappy country – although there are smiles everywhere, although we are known for our flamboyance, our vivid and dazzling fiestas – underneath it all is this everlasting sorrow which pervades our very lives. And so, I continue to write what I know, which disappoints those who want joy, escape. I am sorry, I cannot please you. Perhaps I never will.
Exile is also a theme pursued by writers who are themselves ideological or cultural émigrés. This sense of alienation – what a heavy and abused word! is particularly rife among many middle-class Filipinos anguished by the poverty and the injustice with which the Philippines is now afflicted. Their comfortable lives threatened, many are migrating to "provide" as they say, a brighter future for their children.
This abandonment – for what else could it be – of the native land, can easily be justified of course, not just in its socioeconomic dimension, but even in its spirituality, for this is what it becomes when a literature not just of exile but of escape develops from this matrix of desperation.
In whatever language we write, we can profit from the West whose technology we can borrow and use in any way we want, never, never forgetting that we belong to a particular place, that our loyalties are to a particular people, and it is from this particularity that universality starts. It is also from this particular place, this nation which gives our work its identity. We should bear in mind that art always has nationality. What, after all, is Greece without Homer, Spain without Cervantes, England without Shakespeare, and Filipinas without Rizal.
But the literature of the West today has little thematically to impart or teach us. In these pampered, sybaritic societies, contemporary literature is often surfeited with of the trivia of suburbia – inert, bloodless, lifeless, to name just a few; Tom Wolfe’s, Paul Theroux’s, John Updike’s, Julian Barnes’, the modern I-novels of Japan. There’s nothing heroic or truly melancholy in them.
Surely affluent societies like Singapore throb with ambition, but there is bitter failure, too, and greed, corruption and vengeance lurking in corporate crevices. Death, suicide, passionate love, all these verities, the untenable contradictions, the ingredients for gripping narrative – the writer has to probe deep into the imagination then weave all these conflicts with conscience and with God even to create literature. The rich, after all, also bleed.
Some 50 years ago, J. D. Salinger wrote about one teenager’s anxieties and pain in wealthy America. Catcher in the Rye is now a classic. And censorship? It is a minor challenge to the artist. Remember, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote under the baleful eye of the dreaded Spanish Inquisitions.
Much of this aridity I surmise, is also due to the numbing influence of an academe that must rationalize its so-called high calling, its "science."
Literature is entertainment before it is anything else, just as all art should enrich our lives, explicate this dismal world. And these academics make literature difficult and tedious, when their function is to elucidate, to entice more readers not diminish them.
Many of our academics who earned their postgraduate degrees in Europe and the United States have done more harm than good in the development of our literatures. They immersed themselves in the cultures of the West or in countries other than their own. They honed their analytical skills on models foisted on them by their foreign teachers. In coming back, they repeat lessons from foreign literatures, at times transferring without any transformation of the pedagogical formulae they learned abroad. They force upon their students the same often boring literary models, the same analytical techniques without considering how necessary it is to look deeply at their own literature, its aesthetics, its linguistics and context.
They talk glibly about exotic literary trends and expect their students and colleagues to pay attention to such trends if they are to succeed. They parrot Jacques Derrida, and others – but these neo-fangled critics – study them, they say little or nothing pithy to us–they are new for newness sake.
In referring to foreign models, in alluding to their supposed superiority, we shackle our own imagination, our capacity to analyze on their own merits these aspects of our own literature (or culture) that we need to study, strengthen, and use in the creation of our own art, in lifting our folk culture to a higher plateau of sophistication and modernity.
Attention is now being focused on what the gurus label as post colonialism – the literature critical or emanating from colonialism itself. But is colonialism really over? It has assumed new forms in beguiling and seductive guises, as Borders or Kinokuniya, as Starbucks, as information technology, as globalism. Its worst form, of course, is the native variety when local elites are our own colonizers.
Is our writing useful not only to us, but to a larger community, to a people, to a nation? It is this search for justification, for an explanation of what we are doing, which will then give depth to what we do, not just relevance which we also seek, because we want to belong, because we want to go beyond the confines of our skins, to participate in the larger drama of existence, although in the end, what may happen is that we join the herd, we conform, we are homogenized and we lose that identity which we have so zealously tried to uphold.
In opting to write in English. I have not abandoned my Ilokano, which I love no less. What for do I continue pilgrimaging to the Ilokos where my ancestors came from, but to dip every so often into the hallowed well spring of my past.
English has strengths and weaknesses. Ditto with our languages which are imprecise in measurements but not in sensual expressions, indescribing attitudes, states of mind.
To emphasize color, I write mango green, tamarind brown, I use native flora, the landscape as metaphors, our myths, folk tales as themes. A hundred years ago, American soldiers fought our guerrillas in the mountains – bundok in Tagalog. That word has entered the American lexicon – boondocks. And our conversion of the jeep into the omnipresent jeepney it’s Filipino English now.
Our English literature will continue to developing and dominate the cultural landscape – to name just a few fictionists: Charlson Ong, Eric Gamalinda, Jose Dalisay Jr., the late bloomers, Rosario Lucero and Lilia Ramos de Leon, and the younger Lakambini Sitoy, Menchu Sarmiento, Dada Felix, Dennis Aguinaldo the poets Cirilo Bautista, Ricardo de Ungria, Krip Yuson, Jimmy Abad, and the younger Neil Garcia, Paolo Manalo, Angelo Suarez; the women, Ophelia Dimalanta and Marjorie Evasco. From the South, Tony Enriquez, Leo Deriada, and Carlos Cortes, Gilda Cordero Fernando and Gregorio Brillantes were iconized a generation back.
Our linguistic scholars like Andrew Gonzalez and Lourdes Bautista, and critics like Isagani R. Cruz, have recognized the existence of this Filipino English, as apart from English English and American English, conditioned by Filipino usage and vernaculars, which give the language its distinctive timbre.
For this English variety to flourish, it is necessary for our writers in English to strengthen their roots and withstand the subtle yet pervasive influences from the West. This is very difficult for so many of us look to the West not just for models but as a market and as the imprimatur of our having arrived.
Our literatures in Tagalog, Cebuano and Ilokano will continue developing as the writers in these languages become more facile with craft. Tagalog has truly become a national language. But the minor languages like Pampango, Zambal and Pangasinan will be poorer – there are no novels written in these languages now, and even their poetry is disappearing.
What we need, which we needed way way back, are true cultural critics, undaunted and contemptuous of the restricting attitudes, of values which render us incapable of making truthful judgements on the quality, the validity of our so called cultural achievements. Many of the awards routinely handed down to our artists are thus glittering inanities.
But words are just words, meaningless by themselves, until the writer breathes life into them, and moves readers to think, to act!
Looking back, I deeply regret that I had not acted as much and as well as I should have. I have watched my country sink deeper into poverty and corruption, seen opportunities wasted and lost and no river of tears can resuscitate the fond hopes that were aborted by our own apathy and perfidy.
At a recent Instituto Cervantes seminar I attended by Filipino and Spanish writers, the perception emerged that neither the Spaniards nor the Americans know us. And Singaporeans? If they do at all, in recent times, it is because of Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes We should ask ourselves – does it really matter if the Spaniards or the Americans, do not know us?
Far more important: do our neighbors know us, do we know them? How many Singaporeans have read the authors of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam? Shirley Lim, Lloyd Fernando, Mohammad Haji Salleh of next door Malaysia. In fact, how many Singaporeans have read Christine Suchen Lim, perhaps your best novelist in English today, or Gopal Baratham, the poetry of Lee Tzu Peng, Arthur Yap. How many among us are truly immersed in our own culture so that knowing it, living it, we can then reproduce it not only for ourselves, but for the world to behold.
It is a writer’s primordial function to explain his countrymen to themselves, to remind them of their past no matter how demeaning, to give them a sense of nation, and hopefully as well – ideals, a destiny.
Language is the vessel with which we carry ourselves, our message to ourselves and to our readers. We must recognize this – that language is not as important as what it carries, our beliefs, our hopes and most of all, our courage.
In a novel, as in a short story, we are propelled to the end – to the denouement as it were – and see in it the meaning of it all. We then judge a work of fiction by the way it ends.
There are no ifs in history, so it is in literature as well. The text is there, complete, even sacrosanct as the writer had ended it. Given our circumstances today, how I’d like to tamper with these finished texts–but cannot.
Yet, as an exercise of the imagination, here is how I would have ended Don Quixote.
By way of background, 400 years ago, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published Don Quixote. And about a hundred years ago, Jose Rizal also published his first novel. Rizal read Cervantes and I read both.
In the end, Cervantes sends Don Quixote home to renounce his madness and to die. His passing is so mundane, so bereft of heroism, of pathos. All that brave posturing, that crusading journey – to end so tritely like this. All this irony is, of course, the simple realism of life itself. How wonderful, how truly romantic – even symbolic – if Don Quixote did not end in such a prosaic manner.
Consider this ending then: Sancho Panza returns to his village, older and perhaps wiser. He is alone, his memory is failing, he had spent time looking for his master. He dimly recalls they were somewhere near the ocean, at some port among seamen about to embark on a voyage to the New World. And that is the last he saw Don Quixote for when he woke up the next morning, the old knight errant was gone. Sancho Panza had looked around, asking, but no one had seen Don Quixote. Could he have gotten in one of those puny ships and sailed to distant lands to wage battle against the perceived ogres that ravage the world? Could be have gone by himself? Surely, he who stands alone is the strongest!
Rizal told his fellow exiles in Spain that the struggle for the freedom of Filipinas was not in Spain but in the homeland. And the fight was not just against the Spanish hierarchs. The Indios–their apathy, their indolence and incapacity to understand the underpinnings of nationhood were just as important objects of revolution.
Rizal the intellectual equivocated, argued against revolution, as all intellectuals must. But in raising such arguments, he only convinced his Indio readers of the urgency of revolution itself.
In the conclusion of El Filibusterismo, Simoun, the revolutionary, fails; the bomb that would demolish a household of his enemies fails to explode because one – only one individual – loses heart.
Chekhov said, if you bring a gun to the stage, fire it! I would have exploded the bomb.
If literature is the noblest of the arts, it follows that writers should also be of noble bearing, that we may judge them then not only on the basis of what they have written, their unctuous pronouncements, but also by how they live, and perhaps, even by how they die.
Rizal’s death was sealed even before he returned home. At the Luneta Park facing the sea, he was executed at daybreak on December 30, 1896.
By then, the revolution against Spain – the first anti-colonial rebellion in Asia – had broken out. His martyrdom was in itself the final Indio approval of the revolution that he doubted and railed against.
To sum it all up – we were colonized, we use a colonial language which we have transformed and made into our own. This language has brought us closer to our colonizers so we could understand them, and also curse them–to repeat, curse them in the language they handed down to us. But in doing so, do we free ourselves from the colonial baggage that the language has burdened us with?
We are now much closer to our neighbors who under colonialism were distanced from us. Do we now know them better than our former colonizers? And most of all, has the colonial language made us more aware of ourselves? Do we use it not so much to free ourselves from our colonial hangover, but to provide justice for our own people – this is the perpetual challenge which faces us, a challenge exacerbated by a harsher and more compact world.
Earlier in this presentation, I mentioned Manuel Arguilla, the superb Ilokano who wrote equally superb English. The Japanese executed Arguilla for his guerilla activities in World War II. And yet again, that greatest of Filipino novelists, Jose Rizal–two writers who lived their ideals.
History doomed me to write in English just as it compelled me to leave my village, to strike out for myself and make a living. I knew that I would not go back but that abandoned barrio will always sustain me more than food in the belly can. In accepting this exile, I also recognized and nurtured that enduring bonding with those I left behind, to voice their feeble hopes which they, in their meekness and destitution cannot express.
In fulfilling this duty, I am reminded of Arguilla, and of that writer who is above us all – Rizal, they whose exemplar lives I cannot equal. I would ask our writers to remember them. In fact I would ask writers everywhere to go home if they can, not so much to where they were born but to remember always where they came from, for by doing so, they will give their work not just its magic sense of place but that universality which art always has. I would ask writers, too, to reach out for the sublime nobility of their vocation by being virtuous as well.
So memory, help us.
HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose
The Philippine STAR