Penman No. 252: Eurocentrism in Philippine Literature

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Penman for Monday, May 21, 2017

 

I FLEW out to Jeju, South Korea two Sundays ago to represent the Philippines in a conference organized by the World Literature Forum on “New World Literature Beyond Eurocentrism.” I had invited there by my friend Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English in Dong-a University in Busan, to join a group of distinguished scholars and writers that included Dr. Nelson Maldonado-Flores from Rutgers University, Dr. Harry Garuba from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Miguel Rocha Vivas from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, and Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Calvo from the University of California, Merced.

That’s enough doctors to make up a literary hospital, although it’s doubtful that any or all of us could do much to save a patient. And while I have those three little letters to append to my name when I have to, I always feel a bit out of place in a roomful of literary critics and theorists, being more of a storyteller who strayed into academia. But then you really don’t need a PhD to figure out what happened to us and the way we write.

 I began by giving the background of our colonial history under Spain and the United States, and how colonialism shaped our education and literature in certain ways that are unique in Asia. Here’s the rest of what I said, and I beg your indulgence if you’ve seen or heard snippets of these remarks from previous presentations:

This historical background should explain why, unlike most of its neighbors in Asia, the Philippines has had a staunchly Eurocentric tradition in its literature, which proceeds from our Eurocentric and Christian orientation in education. By “Eurocentric” here I really mean “Anglo-American,” because our Spanish connections have been largely and perhaps sadly lost.

Today, young Filipino writers seeking broader audiences continue to write in English, and many do so online, on platforms such as Wattpad and Amazon, which are circumventing the traditional publishing routes and processes. Because of the Internet and its democratic access and global reach, there is renewed interest in writing in Filipino and the other major Philippine languages—we have more than 100 across our archipelago. But there remains a strong impetus to get published overseas, specifically the West, where Filipino authors such as Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco have made some breakthroughs. Literary agents are a new phenomenon in this wavelet of international publishing, and now every good Filipino author seems to need one.

Is this a good or a bad thing? It deserves to be emphasized that while our literary bridge to the world remains the English language, our material has long been local—our authors write about Filipino characters, problems, and conditions. Those conditions inescapably include our hybridity, which we have come to embrace with all of its contradictions. Indeed, when the late novelist NVM Gonzalez was asked what language he wrote in, he famously replied “I write in Filipino, using English.”

Postcolonial and hybrid literatures like ours provide support for the argument of the empire writing back. When I teach my undergraduate course in American literature, for example, I always remind my students that we are studying America and its culture not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos.

I believe, therefore, that the best way to deal with Eurocentrism or, to put it another way, the legacy of Western colonization is to employ and turn its tools, primarily its language, so the West can see us now as we would like to be seen—in our own image, not theirs. Whether originally written in English or in English translation, a new Filipino novel published in Trump’s America or today’s troubled Europe is an act of political engagement, not a submission to the old master.

Meanwhile the need remains to enlarge our own internal audiences, in our own languages, without need of validation from New York or London.

Among most writers I know in the Philippines, the issue of whether to write in English or Filipino or some other Philippine language has ceased to be the kind of issue that paralyzes the writing hand; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can’t and you don’t. A good number of us have gone bilingual, using whichever language seems more appropriate to the task.

And we feel much more relaxed about this than we did four decades ago, partly because we realize that Filipino writers in English and Filipino often come up against the same objective constraints (e.g., limited readerships in the age of video), and also because of what I’d call the de-Americanization of English.

Certainly English remains the language of the elite, and it’s still the language that everyone wants to learn. But I think we’ve come around to accepting that writing is always more than language, and always more than politics—it’s insight, it’s craft, it’s feeling. What the writer tries to convey is imaginative experience; language is but part of that experience. The language is part of the writing—a vital and inalienable part of it—but the writing is always larger and more complex than the language.

We are now more aware than ever of the fact that while we inherited English as a colonial tongue, we must now use it as 21st-century Filipinos still trying to define who we are and what we want to be.

As Salman Rushdie put it in Imaginary Homelands, “…We can’t simply use the language the way the British did; it needs remaking for our own purposes. Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free.”

This, of course, is the whole burden of postcolonial writing, which, as Bill Ashcroft observes in The Empire Writes Back, “abrogates the privileged centrality of ‘English’ by using language to signify difference while employing a sameness which allows it to be understood.” English is no longer a colonial yoke but a liberative weapon. Achebe was sufficiently confident and hopeful that he could deal with this change: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.”

Substitute “Filipino” for “African”, and there we are, and here we are.

 

 

Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

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Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

WE HAD some very distinguished visitors over at UP from James Cook University in Australia last week, and while most of them came from the sciences, I was happy to join the team that greeted and met with them, led by our very capable Vice President for Academic Affairs, the sociologist Cynch Bautista. These growing partnerships are part of UP’s continuing effort to assume a more international outlook—to imbibe the best of what leading universities around the world have to offer while projecting and sharing our strongest academic and intellectual resources as well.

While most of our international academic exchanges have traditionally been conducted with universities in the West, especially the United States, we have increasingly and consciously broadened our reach to embrace more universities within the region—Taiwan has been a very active partner of late—and Australia should be a logical focus for more of these exchanges.

I myself have had the pleasure of visiting Australia several times—as a visiting writer with the Australia Defence Forces Academy in Canberra, as a guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival, and as a speaker at literary conferences in Perth and Melbourne. What has always impressed me about Australia is not only the sheer vastness of the land, but also the openness and friendliness of the people I’ve met there, and their refreshing informality.

Though not that old—it was established in 1970—JCU has risen quickly to become one of the world’s top universities focused on the tropics, with cutting-edge research in such diverse but important areas as rainforest monitoring, natural disasters, reef management, and vaccine development. Aside from campuses in Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, it also has a campus in Singapore offering courses in business, education, and health sciences.

Our leading UP scientists and administrators had much to share with their JCU counterparts, with UP Los Baños touting its research in nanobiotechnology and biofuels, UP Manila studying ways of dealing with dengue and hookworm, and the Marine Science Institute promoting conservation of genetic diversity and fishery sustainability.

But aside from these concerns, what I personally found fascinating was a discovery I made while looking up the background of our historical relations with Australia. On academia.edu (a treasure trove of academic papers), I ran into an essay written by the noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto and published in 1993 by—coincidence?—James Cook University. The essay covers Philippine-Australian interactions in the late 1800s, and makes an early point about Australia being the second largest market for Philippine coffee and the largest one for sugar in the mid-19th century.

But the essay goes far beyond economic statistics to relate the remarkable stories of two Australians in the Philippines and one Filipino immigrant in Australia. It wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to bring up at our meeting, so I kept my amusement to myself over what Dr. Ileto found:

“The first Australian revealed to us by the Spanish records was an illegal entrant—a nameless and unwelcome woman…. This Sydney woman, [the British consul] pointed out, was definitely not the sort of person the governor-general would allow to stay. And true enough, the latter decreed that she was to be transported without any more delay to Sydney … ‘without permission ever to return to these islands.’

You can guess what this plucky if unlucky lady’s profession was. She would be followed in the annals by one Charles Wilridge Robinson, who first appears in 1880 and “for nearly every year” for at least 17 years “was brought to court for some offence or other,” typically involving a heightened state of intoxication and acts “of a piratical nature,” including “borrowing” a boat for six weeks and sailing down to Palawan.

But my interest peaked and my heart swelled when I came to Ileto’s account of a Filipino who became a successful businessman in Queensland and also a revolutionary patriot. Heriberto Zarcal was a jeweler in Santa Cruz, Manila who moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (facing Papua New Guinea) in May 1892, and soon offered his services as a “Lapidary and Optician, Goldsmith, Watchmaker, and Pearl Cleaner.” Filipino sailors—then known worldwide as “Manilamen”—had become pearl divers in the area since the 1870s. Zarcal grew rich, “mentioned as one of only five men on the Island licensed to deal in pearls… [who] had just acquired his own fleet of pearling vessels.” So successful was he that a European competitor complained by asking “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?”

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What was unique about Zarcal was how—even as he had assumed British citizenship to be able to run a business—he flaunted his sympathies for the revolutionists back home, to the point of displaying a big sign saying “NOLI ME TANGERE” on top of his establishment. I’ll let Rey Ileto tell rest of the story in his own words:

“Zarcal, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, must have been among the many expatriate nationalists who consulted with Aguinaldo. An issue of the Hong Kong journal Overland China Mail which appeared in late March 1898 reported that Zarcal had commissioned the construction of three pearling schooners and named them the Aguinaldo, the Llanera, and the Natividad—in honour of three Filipino generals who had won victories against Spanish forces.” (He would give his other boats names like Sikatuna, Magdalo, Kalayaan, Justicia, and so on.)

“After 1905 Zarcal maintained only a handful of boats for pearling. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on his Thursday Island business as pearl-buyer and jeweller, augmenting his local stock of pearls with purchases from Port Darwin and the Dutch East Indies. Characteristically, perhaps, the final episode in his life was an extended journey to Europe begun in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Zarcal are said to have paid homage to their monarch, the Queen of England, presenting her with a huge pearl. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the Great War, the Zarcals waited it out in Europe, finally renting a flat in Paris in early 1916. There, on 9 February 1917, Zarcal succumbed to a stomach ulcer. At his deathbed were his wife Esther and ‘an old friend from Thursday Island,’ the Rev. Father Ferdinand Hartzer.”

So ends this amazing story, a gift from Down Under which I would never have heard of if I hadn’t been told that we were going to play host to some colleagues from James Cook University—which, to complete the circle, now runs a school on Thursday Island.

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 249: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 1, 2017

 

I WAS honored to be invited by the Writers Union of the Philippines (also known as Umpil, the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas) to give the keynote speech at their annual congress last Saturday, April 29, at Ateneo de Manila University. Here’s the first part of what I said, with the conclusion to follow next week.

I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of “Literature in the Time of Tokhang,” and I’m sure we will all agree that no topic could be timelier and more troubling. I suspect that I was chosen to stand here today much less for any eloquence than for the simple fact that, even peripherally, my family can count personal losses in this sordid war. As many of you know, I wrote a piece for Esquire magazine last year, recounting a horrific moment that no family should ever have to undergo. Let me just read a paragraph from that essay:

“My wife Beng and I were in San Diego late this July, visiting family and taking in the harmless lunacy of Comic-Con, when we received the numbing news that Lauren Kristel Rosales, the girlfriend of Beng’s nephew Gab, had been shot dead by a man as she was taking a jeepney ride to work. We found a picture online of Lauren slumped face down on the floor of the jeep, clutching her bag, and it was the most heartbreaking sight I’d seen, the pain of which Beng’s wails could only scratch at. I’d come across ghastlier crime scenes as a sometime police reporter, but this one hit home and hit hard; she was someone we knew and cared for, someone who occasionally dropped by with Gab and whom we shared Christmas lunches with. We had flown to the US for a family vacation, and were flying home to a family funeral.”

As if this wasn’t terrible enough, three months after Lauren was murdered, her brother JR—a newlywed young man who had flown home from his job in the UK to pursue his sister’s case—was himself shot dead by a motorcycle-riding gunman who remains unknown, like his sister’s assailant, to this day.

To be fair—a word that seems hopelessly inappropriate in these circumstances—no one except the killers and their handlers can say for sure if these murders were part of the government’s so-called war on drugs. Neither was a drug user, and the police themselves would admit that neither Lauren nor JR was on their list of suspects. But these murders happened in an environment and in a manner that, as crime waves and police campaigns typically do, anonymized both victims and perpetrators, and tossed them all into a wide-mouthed meat grinder that crushed not only flesh and bone but guilt and innocence together.

The term “tokhang” itself is a corrupted word, a portmanteau of the Cebuano words toktok and hangyo, or “knock” and “plead”—the very embodiment of courtesy and consideration, conjuring the image of a uniformed policeman, his cap in hand, knocking on the door of a suspect’s home and politely seeking information or cooperation. In practice, tokhang has become its opposite: the gentle knock has become the kick of a booted heel, the cap a gun, and the appeal a barked command.

As writers and storytellers, we have to marvel not only at the terminal efficiency of this process, but also at the facility with which this brief narrative arc has become a cliché—and like all clichés has left us increasingly benumbed and unsurprised. In a sense, this is the true victory of the war on drugs—the capture of the passive mind, and its habituation to systematic terror.

As our friend and fellow writer Fr. Albert Alejo put it, “Sanayan lang ang pagpatay”—“Killing is something you get used to.” We’ve gotten used not only to the killings, but to the stories about them, to the telling and to the listening. And we all know by now how that basic story runs: Juan was a drug addict, so the police went to arrest him, but he resisted arrest, and was therefore shot and killed—probably the fifth or the sixth encounter of its kind in a long day’s war waged by the noble agents of the law against crime and evil.

In this situation, what can writers who have not surrendered their conscience and their writerly inquisitiveness do?

Writers come in many forms and functions, which at one time or other may overlap. In this audience here today are not only fictionists, poets, playwrights, and essayists but also journalists, editors, copywriters, screenwriters, bloggers, and propagandists of all kinds and persuasions. What unites us is the written word—and, increasingly these days, the visible image.

I often tell foreign audiences that we Filipinos can be very proud of our writers and literary resources. We have one of the world’s freest presses and social media, where no topic and no personage is taboo.

But this is accompanied by an awful irony: for all our vaunted liberties, 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. We have only to think of Maguindanao to remember and to understand that, politically, it is the frontline journalist who takes the greatest risks and sustains the most grievous losses in the battle for the Filipino mind.

By comparison, we fictionists and poets have it easy. Politicians read newspapers, not novels; bureaucrats and generals can’t understand Cirilo Bautista and Gemino Abad (and I’m not sure I do, either). Creative writing hardly pays us anything, but we can say whatever we 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 lethal enterprise, especially if you live and work far away from the glare of the metropolis.

It’s worth noting, of course, that we have brought down three presidents—Marcos, Estrada, and Arroyo—by means of media other than print. The massive street revolt that drove Ferdinand Marcos away in 1986 was called for on radio; the movement that hounded Joseph Estrada out of office in 2001 ballooned over SMS; Gloria Arroyo’s disgraceful behavior in 2005 went all over the Internet. I fearlessly predict that the next Philippine revolution—whenever that will be and for whatever cause—will not be sparked by a novel, but by a viral video.

But again, between now and then, what’s a writer to do?

(Conclusion next week. Image from gmanews.)