MAILEEN HAMTO Reviews
The Novel of Justice: Selected Essays 1968-1994 by N.V.M. Gonzalez
(Anvil Publishing, 1996)
How does one begin to offer an analysis of the works of the late Philippine literary icon N.V. M. Gonzalez, a pioneer of Philippine literature in English, whose novels and short stories defined the imaginative soul of a nation still coming to its own?
The essays compiled in “The Novel of Justice: Selected Essays 1968-1994” embody the thoughtful and ruminative quality of N.V.M.’s work in the last decades of his illustrious writing and teaching career. Thirteen thought pieces fixated on an artist’s meditations on his craft: form, readership, voice, point of view, even critiques of other writers.
What sets N.V.M.’s essays apart is its focus on the diasporic experience of a storyteller writing of myth and memory, about the aspirations and apathy of a people long expulsed from the idyllic landscape of the Philippine countryside. The essays focus on identity and place as a writer in exile, whose works decode the Filipino experience and psyche to a global audience unfamiliar and oftentimes indifferent to the legacy of colonization.
In fairness (in current-day Tagalog vernacular), each essay in the volume could easily command multiple analyses from varying perspectives. To properly and adequately offer another perspective of “The Novel of Justice,” it was important to understand the legacy of N.V.M. Along with his contemporaries Nick Joaquin and Bienvenido Santos, N.V.M. braved the unforgiving literary jungle to rise as the indomitable novelist-poet-essayist who straddled and navigated the complexities of his mantel as the bard of his people: gifted and eloquent in the new empire’s language.
Nelson Vincent Madali Gonzalez was born in 1915, a mere 13 years after the end of the Philippine-American War. After more than 300 years of Spanish conquest, the Philippines was then a new addition to the United States’ execution of Manifest Destiny in the Pacific. N.V.M. began writing in the 1930s in literary forms both foreign and familiar, in a language new to the indigenous tongue. In his lifetime, N.V.M. authored six novels, multiple collections of short stories and numerous essays, and won critical acclaim for his disarmingly self-aware depictions of the lived Filipino experience.
The colonists required exceptional people with extraordinary talent to represent the best of the empire, and N.V.M. was indeed genius. Not only did N.V.M. write about Philippine folk life with great authenticity and empathy, he also schooled himself in the tradition of American writers and Western thought. Among American and Philippine critics, he drew comparisons to William Faulkner.
In academia was where he truly belonged, as he relished the opportunity to connect with emerging writers through teaching appointments in the Philippines, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1987, N.V.M. received the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of the Philippines. He was honored with the 1996 “Diwa ng Lahi” recognition, in honor of his contributions to Philippine literature. N.V.M. received the Philippines’ 1997 “National Artist for Literature” award.
Peerless as he was among Philippine writers in the “received language,” N.V.M. often critiqued the Filipino writer’s place in English-language literature as a son of the “third-world.” He handled with great care his responsibility as a storyteller, capturing myth and truth in equal measure. In the 1975 essay “The Literature of Emerging Nations,” he wrote:
“Disequilibirum is the essential quality of life in emerging nations: and this is not a political statement but a literary one… It is the writers – the poets, novelists, short-story writers and playwrights – who make available the ‘felt life’ in the experience of the national community” (50).
Acknowledging the primacy of the novel in Western literary tradition, he pondered whether the novel truly belonged in the social and economic realities of young nations, still reeling from post-colonial woes, in the backdrop of a “workaday world lived by people struggling out of colonialism.”
“Why not native verse forms, native narrative epic structures or whatever to fit today’s themes?
Must one indeed do the novel? Judging by its very history, the novel I a product of leisure. But how real is leisure in the societies that we speak of here?” (58)
From his perch in the diaspora, N.V.M. translated Philippine rural landscapes and her people to a Western audience, most likely well-intentioned Americans who, for one reason or another, sought to develop an intimation and appreciation for colonial writers.
In writing about writing, N.V.M. conveys a longing for amid isolation from his own people whose complex lives serve as his muse. His reflections – bordering on “self-flagellation” – constantly critiqued purpose and intent: who is the reader? Despite mastering the colonial language, he laments the lack of a Philippine middle-class literary audience. For how can a people legitimately construct a literary identity out of the disparate and disjointed experience of self and nationhood. In his 1990 essay “Up and About the Cultural Wake,” N.V.M. writes:
“Our more than seventy years of literacy in at least four languages – Spanish, Tagalog or Pilipino, English and Visayan – have not created in the Philippines a readership large enough to support and see a national literature flourish” (154).
Irony coexists with justice. N.V.M. wrote extensively about the impact of Dr. Jose Rizal on Philippine literature and what the late novelist’s works represented for the Filipino. That Rizal’s primary audience wasn’t the Filipino indio, and that the national hero wrote in the colonial language of Spanish was not lost on N.V.M.
Essays written for California publications in the 1990s more directly address the political realities of the ongoing occupation of the Philippines. In his 1992 essay “Even as the Mountains Speak,” he alludes to the tragedy of Filipino flight from the homeland and into “diasporic suspension, un-countried, often undocumented” (106). In his last decade, N.V.M.’s writings bore the toll of decades of exasperation, carrying the heaviness of witnessing and telling story of the Filipino’s grief and toil in the fast-moving machine of globalization.
Enshrining storytelling, myth- and meaning-making, N.V.M. challenges the next generation of culture-bearers to source imagination from indigenous thought. He regrets that the “intellectualism of the past” (107) has caused writers and other creatives to be uncomfortable with drawing upon the richness and expanse of Philippine indigenous knowledge that survived by adapting to millennia of foreign influences. Hopeful that the act of remembering our sacred stories will lend credence to pure and convincing metaphors for the Filipino worldview, he summons students of literature and history to come home and look within, for “our legacy from ‘once-upon-a-time’ is too rich to discard in the name of progress” (69).
Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, Maileen Hamto currently lives in Colorado, by way of the Pacific Northwest and the Texas Gulf Coast. For more than 20 years, Maileen has worked in organizations focused on eliminating poverty, dismantling racism, and creating opportunities for diverse communities. Presently, she leads equity and inclusion strategies for a community mental health agency. In her everyday work, she is guided by wisdom gleaned from her lived experiences as an immigrant woman of color who is humbled everyday by the journey of decolonization. Maileen curates content for the Colors of Influence blog, which covers issues from workforce diversity, cultural preservation, community advocacy, health disparities, and social inequities. Since obtaining a degree in Journalism from the University of Houston, Maileen has earned two master’s degrees: an MBA from the University of Portland and a master’s in Healthcare Management from Oregon Health & Science University. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Urban and Diverse Communities at the University of Colorado in Denver.