Penman No. 172: Going Against the Grain

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Penman for Monday, October 26, 2015

I WAS asked to give the first keynote last week at the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators at the University of the Philippines, on the conference theme of “against the grain,” and here’s part of what I said:

The Filipino writer is among the freest in the world as far as self-expression is concerned; but the Philippines is also one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world—according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, it ranked second only to Iraq in 2013.

Creative writing won’t pay you much, but you can say whatever you want and reasonably expect to stay alive and ambulant. Nobody in this country ever got killed or imprisoned in recent times because of a novel or a story. Neither has a Filipino despot been deposed because of a play or a poem. Journalism, on the other hand, can be a dangerous enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

…. We have one of the region’s richest concentrations of writers, and very likely the region’s most strongly developed systems for the development of new writers; but these writers have precious few readers.

We have never lacked for writers, and likely never will. The Filipino writing community is very much alive, producing new work not only in English but in Filipino and in many regional languages.

Within the region, we can claim to have the oldest, the longest-running, and possibly the most comprehensive writing programs—not just writers’ workshops which go back 50 years, but also degree programs from the BA to the PhD in several major universities. The Palanca Awards, which are handed out every year to the best work in many categories and several languages, have been running now for 65 straight years.

New young writers will find it easier to break out and get noticed by their peers and seniors here than in many other places, because, while Filipinos respect their elders, and everyone above 40 is a “Sir” or a “Ma’am,” we do not have the kind of master-apprentice, or senior-junior relationship that exists elsewhere. You do not need a senior’s validation or sponsorship to advance; indeed you might move forward much faster by slaying a literary father or two.

But for all the literary talent we think we have, it can be argued that creative writers really don’t matter much in Philippine politics today—certainly not as much they used to—because, to be hyperbolic about it, no one reads, no one buys books, and no one understands nor cares what we’re doing.

It’s a sad fact that in a country of 100 million people, with a literacy rate of about 97%, a first printing for a new novel or book of stories will likely run to no more 1,000 copies—which will take about a year to sell, and earn the author a maximum of about P50,000 (about US$1,000) for a few years’ work—good enough for a new iPhone. There’s no such thing as a professional novelist or playwright in the Philippines, which makes it easier for writers of any worth to be sidetracked or co-opted by the government or by industry.

It’s ironic that Philippine literature’s political edge should be blunted not by timidity nor by censorship but by sheer market forces. The simplest reason many Filipinos don’t buy books has to be poverty, with the price of an average paperback being higher than the minimum daily wage.

But perhaps we writers ourselves are also to blame, for distancing ourselves from the mainstream of popular discourse. Politics is nothing if not the domain of the popular, and the very fact that many of us write in English is already the most distancing of these mechanisms. The question of language has always been a heavily political issue in multilingual Philippines, where some regionalists still resent the choice of Tagalog as the basis of the new national language Filipino in 1935, and where English is reacquiring its prominence not only as the lingua franca and the language of the elite but as our economic ticket to the burgeoning global call-center industry.

Political change in the Philippines has historically been led by the middle and upper classes, from the Revolution against Spain of 1896 to the anti-Marcos struggle of the 1970s and the 1980s to the Edsa uprisings of 1986 and 2001. Therefore, one might argue that English is, in fact, the language of reform and revolt in the Philippines in modern times.

But it is this same English-literate middle class—our potential readership—that is the strongest bastion of neocolonialism in the Philippines, blindly infatuated with Hollywood, hip-hop, and Harry Potter, keen on trading the local for the global, opportunistic in its outlook and largely unmindful of the social volcano on the slopes of which it has built its bungalows. As I often remind my fellow Filipino writers, our rivals on the bookshelves are not each other, but J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, Paulo Coelho, and Tom Clancy.

When I return to the two main points I raised—that we are free to speak and to write, but only in politically inconsequential forms; and that we have writers aplenty, but very few readers—I have little choice but to conclude that the main culprit is our self-marginalization through English, and the academicized, Western-oriented mindset the language encourages.

The interesting upside of this unfortunate situation is that—largely untethered from the considerations of commerce and politics—our writers have been free to write their hearts and minds out, producing poetry and fiction of a high quality that, in a double irony, might yet break through to the global market.

The triple irony would be that it sometimes takes the international spotlight for local readers to take notice of native genius. It sounds like wishful thinking, but by being here today, and connecting our literature to yours, we might do enough together to push our literatures to the forefront of our peoples’ consciousness.

But let’s face it: the margins are familiar if not comfortable territory to many of us, not only here but wherever we live and write, as they give us a clearer view of the center. Going against the grain is very much in the grain of how and why we work. And if you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t be here today.

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