Luis H. Francia introduces Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Philippine Literature in English
(Rutgers University Press, 1993)
Mr. and Mrs. English Travel with a Rattan Suitcase
When I first mentioned to American friends that I was editing an anthology of Philippine literature in English, most assumed that it would be literature translated into English. That they should have assumed so didn’t surprise me. Years ago, when I first came to New York, I thought somewhat naively that everyone knew Filipinos spoke English, not as a borrowed tongue but as one they grew up with. My settling in Manhattan quickly disabused me of that notion. I learned early on, living in a country that once occupied my own, that former colonizers rarely know much about the histories of their ex-colonies beyond the superficial, the exotic. The reverse was true, of course: the vanquished quickly learn the victors’ customs and quirks. In a sense, our voyage here reflects an artificial nostalgia, a remembrance of what we never actually had. Initially, I was puzzled when people I met on different occasions often remarked about how fluent my English was, wondering innocently where I had picked it up. My reply was usually a flippant “on the plane coming here.” It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that, while uninformed, the question was perfectly innocent.
In fact, English is spoken throughout the archipelago that is the Philippines. A good number of Filipinos grow up bilingual and even trilingual, not uncommon considering that approximately eighty-seven indigenous languages exist in the country. This linguistic bonus may be the only advantage to having been colonized, although, strange as it may seem, Spanish is no longer widely spoken. Although modern Tagalog (or Pilipino, as the national tongue is now termed) has a large, Spanish-derived vocabulary, and although the Southeast Asian nation was part of New Spain for three and a half centuries, Spanish never took hold the way it did in Latin America, or the way that the Spanish form of Catholicism did. Not being a linguist, I can only hazard a guess. In 1898, when the USS Maine was blown up while anchored off Havana, the United States of America, spoiling for a fight, quickly declared war on Spain and brought the hostilities to its colonies: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. With that martial embrace, the United States permanently altered Philippine history, forever delaying the emergence of Philippine Spanish as a full-grown language.
This emergence, that flowering, would have come earlier had the Spanish proved to be as fervent educators as they were proselytizers. The conquistador and the friar constituted a formidable duo, implanting the fear of God in brown breasts, teaching the indios prayering charms to ward off the devil but lacking the same zeal in educating the masses. Higher education was reserved for the wellborn, the ilustrados, scions of transplanted Spanish families and of prominent creole clans. Old World imperialists that they were, the Spanish disdained any notion of democracy, horrified by the thought of a brown-skinned people ever identifying with them. Whatever their faults they always made it perfectly clear how unattractive cross-cultural pollination was to them.
Such unabashed elitism did little to blunt a burgeoning nationalist consciousness. There were at least two hundred revolts before 1896, when the Katipunan, a secret revolutionary society determined to oust the Spanish, launched a successful revolution, the first in colonial Asia. But victory, however sweet, was short-lived. Another victor had emerged, more powerful than the fledgling republic. The United States had easily defeated Spain and, in a betrayal of its alliance with the Philippine revolutionaries, struck an onerous bargain in Paris in December 1898, paying the Spanish government $20 million for the privilege of being the new plantation master.
The Yankee embrace quickly turned into a stranglehold. In a little-known guerrilla war that prefigured Vietnam by more than fifty years and may have claimed a million Filipino lives, the Philippine revolutionary government under the leadership of General Emilio Aguinaldo resisted this New World strain of imperialism for three years before succumbing to superior arms.
Of the U.S. colonial adventure, Mark Twain, in his essay “The Philippine Incident,” portrayed a Filipino “sitting in darkness” who tells himself: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”[i] These Caesars proved to be slier and more efficient than the Spanish. Urged on by both the missionary zeal of Manifest Destiny—a patently racist policy based on the Kiplingesque idea of the White Man’s Burden—and self-interest, the Yankees realized very quickly that it would be easier for their values to take hold if their subjects—or as we were referred to patronizingly in those days, “little brown brothers”—learned their language. As poet and critic Bienvenido Lumbera points out, “Although there was some debate as to whether or not a language native to the Filipinos ought to be the language of education, the architects of the colonial educational system quickly decided it would be to the advantage of the U.S. to make English the medium of instruction in the Philippine schools…. English opened the floodgates of colonial values through the conduits of textbooks originally intended for American children.”[ii]
So it was that six hundred American teachers arrived in 1901, on board the USS Thomas (from then on, all the colonial-era teachers were called “Thomasites”) to spread the gospel according to Thomas Jefferson & Co. and later to make us forever imagine the ethereal beauty of white Christmases, Coca Cola bottles in hand. The Philippine Normal School was founded the same year, so Filipinos could be trained as teachers. In the meantime, a nationwide public school system was being set in place. Having been denied mass public education by the Spanish, Filipinos took to learning their ABCs and nursery rhymes like the proverbial ducks to water, water of a distinctive New England character. By enabling Filipinos of proletarian background to go not just to grammar school but all the way to university, the American occupiers seemed downright revolutionary. While Filipino intellectuals had previously come from the ranks of the affluent, now they came as well from the poorer socioeconomic classes. An American-inspired education gave them, in theory anyway, the means for economic and social mobility. In a feudal society, however, dependent on clan and blood ties, the notion of mobility ultimately proved to be a cruel illusion.
Although Spanish continued to be taught formally in schools through to the early 1970s, English quickly supplanted it as the language not just of the literati but of businessmen and politicians as well. In short, it took hold in every arena of the public sector. Students learned schoolroom Spanish but chose instead to mimic American accents and slang. Today, except in certain boardrooms and bedrooms, Spanish hardly figures in any significant public or private discourse. If the most enduring legacy of the Spaniard was his religion, that of the Yankee was his language, not, as some claim, democratic institutions. The Americans may have set these up, but they never allowed unfettered discourse, certainly not radical criticism of their rule. And they continued to accommodate the same narrow interests as had existed under the Spanish. As a result, democracy in the Philippines has always been subject to a great deal of instability. But the language of administration remains. As in India, it has also served as a unifying language: people from different linguistic regions often communicate much better with each other through English. Of course, it is English filtered through regional accents, just as it is elsewhere.
As with most Filipinos who get an education, I grew up with three languages: English, Spanish, and Pilipino. The order in which I list them indicated for a very long time each tongue’s social standing. And of the three, I am most fluent in English, reflecting both the conditions of a home where our parents spoke to us in English and the middle-class society I was reared in, as attuned to the mores of the Western World as to those of its own milieu. And my education at the hands of American Jesuits guaranteed an assiduous cultivation of the language at the expense of Pilipino, referred to by our teachers as the “dialect.” In high school we were forbidden to speak “dialect” on the premises, and if caught indulging in it by a teacher or a school monitor (a student who performed the equivalent functions of a jail trusty) had to undergo “Post”—a form of corporal punishment whereby we had to perform numbing calisthenics after school.
Except for classes in Pilipino at the primary school level, my education was thoroughly Western and almost as thoroughly colonial. The very name of the Jesuit university I attended—Ateneo de Manila, Spanish for Atheneum of Manila—reflected its European origins. Naturally, the texts we studied were from the traditional Western canon of literary and philosophical classics, from Beowulf and Virgil’s Aeneid to Milton’s Paradise Lost, from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to Ernest Hemingway’s stories, from the pre-Socratics to Kant and Martin Buber, from James Joyce’s Dubliners to the plays of Albee and Beckett. It was fashionable to be given over to bouts of doubt, of angst, to have, in other words, in a way only the young possess, the dissolute airs of resolute iconoclasts. And the juvenile rebellions we indulged in were the sincerest form of flattery we could give the Western authors we so revered. The Thomasites and their successors had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Given the slant of our education, not a single class in Philippine literature in English, or in any of the country’s major languages, was ever taught. (That situation has since been remedied—proof that a sense of nationalism has finally made some impact on the private school system.) So I knew it only through my own intermittent readings outside of school, and through meeting some of its authors. In hindsight that might have been best, for then I approached the texts with no preconceptions whatsoever. Still, Philippine literature in English deserved a place in the curriculum, although its body of works was understandably slim compared to that of the English and the Americans.
Steeped as I and my peers were in Western literature, we looked upon our own literature in English as a poor relative, to be visited from time to time as an act of charity. Our indifference was inevitable. Had our educators not been so slavish in their singular imitation of the West, there was absolutely no reason then, as there is none now, not to appreciate more than one body of literature. This mistaken, patronizing attitude which we confused with hipness unfortunately extended to the other arts as well. Thus, for instance, we much preferred Hollywood films to Filipino ones—sneeringly labeled bakya, a word meaning “wooden clogs” (footwear for the peasantry) and, in the cultural jargon of the day, used as a pejorative for any manifestation of popular art. The beauty of the local screen goddesses had to have Caucasian antecedents. The more mestiza the better.
Our education, alleged to attune us to the complexities of a heavily Western, heavily modern world, really served as a wedge between what was native to our soil and what we were in the process of becoming: stand-ins for our American and Americanized mentors. More than anything else, our postcolonial education revealed vividly that school was really more about the process of socialization. We were expected to embody the store of traditions that mark a society. The irony of course was that many of these so-called traditions had been transplanted and considered superior to native ones by that very fact. No more fitting epigraph exists about our condition, our altered state, than what Edward Said, discussing Jean Genet’s late works, wrote: “Imperialism is the export of identity.”[iii]
Sometimes there were funny consequences. I remember a classmate and friend of mine who was the only soul on campus who owned a surfboard. He was a devotee of the Southern California lifestyle, from his Beach Boys haircut to his sockless feet in penny loafers. Sometimes there were pathetic results: classmates who spoke very little Pilipino and when they did, spoke it with difficulty. Most of us, however, straddled the cultural divide quite easily, blending both worlds unconsciously. Even my surfer friend (he spoke Pilipino fluently), to his credit, had enough of a sense of the absurd to laugh at himself. This balancing act was an art, honed over the centuries by a people continually visited by stranger after stranger, each with fixed ideas as to who we were.
Only after graduating from university did I begin to methodically read the works of writers who were homegrown, marked with the same cultural influences, and who used English in a manner I could instinctively identify with. Not only was the tongue familiar; so too were the writers. I’ve always resented the lack of formal studies of Philippine literature in English and when the chance came to do this anthology, I took it readily. My preparation for it has been a second education, a rereading of much of what I had read before and a getting to know works I had hitherto not read. If the idea of a literature in English other than American or British was lodged somewhat amorphously in my brain, work on this anthology has shaped it up, and given the word flesh, so to speak. It has also stripped away certain misplaced expectations. Simply for the reason that Philippine literature in English has existed for barely nine decades, it would be unwise and unfair to think of it along the same lines as those of English and American literatures which both have the advantage of time and which originate in sources different from those of Philippine culture. It would be more appropriate to compare it, say, to Indian literature in English, or to other literatures whose midwife was colonialism: the Caribbean countries, Kenya, Singapore, Malaysia and the rest.
Yet it would be a great mistake to view the literatures produced during and after the colonial era as merely expressions of a foreign culture in native disguise. Certainly there are in these literatures works that simply mimic, often artfully, the (as it were) “mother” literature. But most of the writers, having subsumed English as an expressive vehicle, have long cast it in their image, shedding the mantle of imitation and self-consciousness. Not surprisingly, the complex, even Byzantine, web of relations between the colonizer and the colonized, and the discourse between different cultures, often figure as prominent themes in these literatures, with their characters embodying cultural contradictions, North-South, East-West.
We have often been accused of not knowing ourselves, of lacking a clear-cut, well-defined cultural sensibility. It is an accusation born of the belief that culture is a neat package, convenient for handling and weighing. This concept, intrinsically related to ideas of racial purity and a defensive insularity, is the complete antithesis of living Philippine culture, an attempt to pasteurize and sterilize it. And many of us are forever attempting to be irreducibly pure when what we really want to be is irreducibly Filipino. In the Philippine context, what is foreign and what is indigenous has always been a tricky and ultimately impossible subject. For better or worse, Filipinos have unconsciously perfected the art of mixing the two up, confounding definitions and scholars. To be a purist in such a situation is not just to be a hopeless romantic but to turn away from the modern Filipino as he or she is: Malayan, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic, and American—somewhat like a Cubist painting with blurry lines. As in the painting, a synthesis is involved, a recognition, an acceptance, of a confusion that can be seen in positive terms. Poet Rolando Tinio hits it right on the head when he declares, “I mean, somehow the idea of cultural confusion appeals to me, and I hope that it happens everywhere else even as I suspect that it happened to the Greeks and the Romans and the Europeans. The trouble is that we look at the past and the present through the eyes of scholarship, and scholarship being in love with death, it necessarily kills what it brings to light.”[iv] This hodgepodge quality of Philippine society is deliberately reflected in the works of many of our writers, imparting an idiosyncratic flavor and a layered complexity to their works. Thus, in her novel, Dogeaters, Jessica Hagedorn captures the mestizo nature and soap-operatic flair of Manila society. The two main characters, Rio and Joey, are of mixed blood, as is their milieu which has everything, from Hollywood icons and Pacific island languor to Catholic rituals and macho posturing.
In terms of a genuinely Philippine literary tradition, the past nine decades of Philippine writing in English form part of its core. There are other, older streams forming this river of tradition: Tagalog, Visayan, Spanish, among others. A parallel situation obtains here in the United States, the quintessential immigrant society: The Anglo tradition may be the most prominent, but it certainly isn’t the only one. There are African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American and—the oldest—Native- American traditions. English in the Philippines many have come from a feared Anglo America, but it has since blended with the landscape. The poet Gemino Abad declares that “the Filipino writer of English is enabled to transform, to mold unto his own image and sensibility, the ideology or the way of seeing and feeling which the alien language secretes. English in Filipino hands, under the pressure of his own circumstances and choices, becomes not English but Filipino. If he is at first possessed, he comes also in time to posses both the medium and the message in his own way, by the language of his blood.”[v]
I believe writers write primarily for self-knowledge, to try to understand the mystery of being, and of being themselves, perhaps in relation to others—to society–or simply in relation to their own ideas and perceptions of who they are. Apart from style, what differentiates two writers from different backgrounds is language and culture. The process of exploration, of writing, of language itself, cannot be separated from the cultural process. Nick Joaquin, then, or Ninotchka Rosca is no more American than the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott or the Indian writer R.K. Narayan is English. Language—as filtered through a particular culture—and writer always interact, each language offering a distinct if stubborn landscape, the writer seeking to alter its contours to fit, more or less, the geography of his or her experience, real or imagined. Whatever Philippine writers write about, whether they intend to or not, reveals them as being ineluctably Filipino.
In a postcolonial society such as ours, the question of cultural identity is a crucial one, particularly since our sense of collective self tends to be fragmented. Social distinctions in an industrial society normally presuppose a distance between “I” and “Thou” – and an even greater one between “I” and “We,” with the “I” holding the preeminent spot. We take this atomization for granted; but from all indications, precolonial Philippine society—a geographic grouping of different kingdoms and tribes—stressed the communal over the individual. And it was a sense of communality that embraced strangers as long as these weren’t hostile. It was an extremely hospitable embrace: a semitropical climate, volcanic soil, and fertile waters meant abundance was the rule rather the exception. We could afford to be generous to a fault and so were. Such generosity was manipulated by the Westerner, rendering us victims of our own hospitality.
Behind our legendary open arms is a deeper reason than sheer bonhomie. Good that the newcomer feels relaxed but make no mistake: the paroxysms of generosity and friendliness are essentially masks to conceal our inner selves. Seduced by kindness, the stranger will be less inclined to probe further and inquire about the secret compartments every people possesses. When Octavio Paz in his study of the Mexican character, The Labyrinth of Solitude, describes his typical compatriot as “a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile,” he could have been describing the Filipino.[vi] Our masks of kindness have helped us survive, as the apt and familiar phrase in Manila goes, four hundred years in a convent and fifty in Hollywood.
Filipinos have been so good at hiding their selves that these are in danger of being lost. It has been fashionable for a while now to speak of the “Other”: one hears this notion incessantly discussed in panel after panel, often with predictable rhetoric substituting for insight. For most Westernized Filipinos – and I certainly can be categorized as such – the “Other” exists but as a rudimentary reminder of what the pre-Western inhabitant of the archipelago was like, or was imagined to be like. Here ultimately lies the cruel legacy of colonialism: the Other refers to what was once our familiar but now has become foreign; and what was once foreign has now become our familiar. If the idea of the Other appears as an exoticized objectification of the alien in contemporary Western society, in the Philippines what has been exoticized and commodified has been the deepest part of our selves. The chroniclers of our history who were known to the world were invariably Westerners; these wrote about us as though “us” were distant. No wonder then that between the chronicled and the chronicler there existed a tremendous gap. Even today, in a supposedly postcolonial age, colonial images of the Philippines—for that matter, of Third World countries—linger on in global discourse like an invincible virus, spread by “experts” who, like their predecessors, happen for the most part to be white and male. Inheritors of that formalist history (as opposed to living, unwritten traditions) occupy the exact same spot where stood the original observers and with the same bent: viewing themselves as though they were Other, perpetuating a decidedly painful colonial hangover.
Literary texts being historical texts as well, i.e., written at precise moments in a country’s evolution, they can help the process of commodification, or they can expose it. Apart from their literariness, they tell us a great deal about ourselves. Even more, they can give us back our “selves.” In a sense, many of our Filipino writers in English are engaged in the literary equivalent of guerrilla warfare, using the very same weapon that had been employed to foist another set of foreign values upon a ravished nation, but now as part of an arsenal meant for conscious self-determination and the unwieldy process of reclaiming psychic territory from the invader. In the process, as we have grown more assured, no longer self-conscious in the use of what was once a foreign tongue, we have become more aware of—no, much more comfortable with—the many disparate strands of the collective self.
Imagine, then, English in the Philippines as an American-made train, its luggage racks and boxcars crammed with American baggage and freight. Imagine the train rolling out of the depot and across the country, picking up Filipino passengers along the way. As the train’s racks and freight cars are filled with what to the Filipino are strange-looking suitcases, portmanteaus, and various other items, it becomes readily apparent that there is no place for his or her own luggage. In a supreme act of accommodation, many chuck their goods out the window and cheerfully appropriate what is already there. But as the train goes deeper and deeper into the countryside, more and more passengers come aboard until eventually one or two or three start to toss out the strange-looking suitcases, portmanteaus, and various other items and replace them with their own, but made of bamboo, rattan, buri. And almost everyone follows suit, until finally the train’s metamorphosis is complete, and it becomes indisputably Philippine.
The stories and poems in this anthology are portmanteaus or a unique society, containing images drawn from different social strata, different time periods, different locals. Businessmen, doctors, soldiers, farmers, workers, slum dwellers, immigrants, artists, students—they’re all here. And the themes are as varied: incest, the burdens of tradition, reincarnation, the horror of tyranny, young love, exile, among others. From Paz Marquez Benitez’s short story “Dead Stars” (the earliest story included here) and Amador Daguio’s poem “Man of Earth” to Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas’s story, “Prodigal Season,” and Emmanuel Lacaba’s poem “Open Letters to Filipino Artists,” this collection of short stories and poetry should give the American reader—and, for that matter, any reader of English—more than aesthetic pleasure, even though that is the main intent here. It should also give the reader a view of Philippine society, past and present, different from what could otherwise be obtained.
Because this is a single volume, I have limited its scope to the short story and to poetry; my choices are based on an exhaustive reading of works published since Philippine literature in English began. As is probably true of other anthologies, I selected more than could finally fit in this one-volume format. The subsequent and painful task of eliminating stories and poems was solely mine so, yes, I am to blame for this book’s omissions, no one else.
When we consider that English was brought in at the turn of this now-ending century and that recognizably serious literary efforts started to emerge in the 1920s, the results in literature have been remarkable. For one thing, many of the pioneers in Philippine literature in English are still with us. And we benefit from their recollections, especially on their early literary influences. Bienvenido Santos, now in his early eighties, says at the beginning of his career that he was “impressed by Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson. I like, I loved, Anderson. … It was a tribute to the way Sherwood Anderson wrote, I really like Anderson better than Hemingway. Later, of course, I even liked Faulker better than Hemingway.” The poet Angela Manalang Gloria remembers reading Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although she “preferred Spanish poetry, which cast a heady spell over me.”[vii]
Inevitably, the way most of the early Philippine writers used English indicated that it had come from the outside. This couldn’t be helped. They grew up in a society that, while governed by English-speakers, was still very much Hispanic. Describing those early efforts, critic Pura Santillan-Castrence points out: “Indeed, Spanish was the language which the predecessor-writers used. …Much of that Spanish psychology has clung to the writing of some of them, as well as the Spanish floridness of expression, the flowery turn of phrase. Perhaps also some of the bombast.”[viii] So we had a Filipino, steeped in a Catholic, Spanish tradition, articulating the creative impulse in an Anglo-Saxon tongue.
In literary endeavors, the first known Filipino poem in English, Justo Juliano’s “Sursum Corda,” was printed in 1907, six years from the arrival of the Thomasites. In 1920, the first collection of poems was published, Never Mind and Other Poems, by Procopio Solidum. But as early as 1899 there existed English-language newspapers, and in 1900 the Daily Bulletin, (now the Manila Bulletin) was founded. As was to be expected, initial literary expressions were stiff, betraying the still-heavy influence of Spanish. Thus for instance these lines, from Maximo Kalaw’s “The Parting Year”:
But no! O no! leave that alone –
Awakening love! I have it hid
Within me deep, leave it unknown
Till it o’ergrows and flies unbid.[ix]
The early short stories in English, which favored romances and adventures as themes, displayed the same awkward characteristics.[i] By the mid-1920s, however, stories were beginning to shed the mantle of imitation and, with the publication of Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars” in 1925, the Philippine short story in English had arrived. A tale of loss and disillusionment, “Dead Stars” is simply constructed but gives a convincing portrait of a man’s inner conflict, born of a kind of romantic idealism, and his attempts to resolve it.[ii] There is little dialogue, and the author skillfully situates the reader squarely in the middle of the protagonist Alfredo’s romantic turmoil.
In poetry Luis Dato, born during the early years of American rule, was among the first poets to create work that, like “Dead Stars,” established its own identity, its own place. “Day on the Farm,” written in 1934 and following the classical sonnet form with its ABAB rhyme scheme, isn’t really about farm life but about the poet’s beloved whose “smiles have died.” While romantic, it avoids the exaggerated rhetorical flourish typical of the lines above. And the couplet, with its gentle remonstrance, is distinctly modernist in tone.
Unquestionably, English has been ingrained into our writers’ consciousness as yet another language in which to express themselves. Yet, though no longer in an overbearing way, an unmistakable Spanish flavor lingers on in much of contemporary Philippine literature in English. As many have remarked, our fiction bears a strong resemblance to South America’s. And why not? With our Hispanic roots we could very well be a displaced Latin American country, Southeast Asia’s odd man.
But it is precisely the tensions and contradictions that result from two or more cultures coexisting with the same social framework that give much of our literature its impetus. The best example is Nick Joaquin, one of the country’s most gifted writers. Joaquin, who has written in both Spanish and English, represents a bridge between a Hispanic Philippines and an Americanized archipelago. His subjects have included the ilustrados as well as young modern couples very much attuned to Yankee ways. But it is in his stories of the dying class of Hispanicized Filipinos that Joaquin is at his best. Such masterpieces as “The Summer Solstice” and “Mayday Eve” could only have been penned by a Filipino of a certain generation steeped in the Hispanic traditions, especially Catholicism, that took root in the islands.
His stories of predominantly creole characters form a collective romantic elegy, infused with a bittersweet tone, on the grandeur of the colonial Spanish era. Often, Joaquin reveals how a pre-Hispanic and Hispanic ways are a curious and in the end contrapuntal conjunction. In “The Summer Solstice,” the upper-class Don Paeng and Doña Lupeng have all the affections of Spanish gentry, but Doña Lupeng gets drawn into a pre-Hispanic ritual, the Tadtarin, where only women are allowed to participate and which ultimately asserts the supremacy of the female principle. It is something the domineering husband cannot understand, so distant is he from the native traditions, but in a powerful ending, he submits to her totally.
This tug between two cultures is a common note sounded by many of our writers, such as Carlos Bulosan, Bienvenido Santos, F.Sionil Jose, Sinai Hamada, and Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas. The stories of Bulosan and Santos in particular very often deal with the confluence and conflict of Philippine and American values. Bulosan is especially concerned with the social dimensions of this uneasy exchange, expressing his concerns mostly in comedy and satire. Santos favors an understated emotionalism, and records the psychological toll years of exile take on womenless manongs, or aging Filipino men. Both Bulosan’s and Santos’s characters embody the inequities and loneliness of being a person of color in a predominately white society.
In Philippine poetry in English, with themes that are even more varied, the cultural tug is not so evident simply because of poetry’s elliptical nature. But a debate began in the 1930s, between art for art’s sake and art informed by social causes, continues to be an influential one. That was the decade when Jose Garcia Villa – the best-known Philippine poet in English – first declared meaning anathema to poetry, or at the very least irrelevant. He stressed craft and the supremacy of language and music over content. Because Villa, who has lived most of his life in New York, acquired an international reputation, his pronouncements have had a seminal influence on younger generations of Philippine writers. His credo – formalist, abstract, experimental – broke with tradition, a tradition created by Tagalog and Spanish works written from the nineteenth century to the 1920s. Prior to 1946, when we gained our independence from the United States, writers drew principally from this tradition, fueled by the 1896 Revolution, in their drive for the Filipinos’ right to self-determination. Accompanying the clamor for independence was a campaign “to make Americans aware of the cultural legacy of the Filipino people, as this was concretized in the folklore, history and literature of the Philippines.”[iii]
It was precisely this tradition and the agrarian and social unrest of the 1930s (an unrest even greater today) that prompted Villa’s contemporary, the critic and educator Salvador P. Lopez, to repudiate the poet’s aesthetics as the meaningless result of a writer, “a decadent aesthete who stubbornly confuses literature with painting and refuses to place works in the employ of man and his civilization.” For Lopez, the writer ignored society and its political and social struggles only at the risk of becoming irrelevant, of being read solely in elitist circles. Lopez favored the creation of works in service of political and social change—in a word, proletarian literature.[iv]
The advent of New Criticism as an influential critical theory, with its overriding emphasis on the text as a thing-in-itself (whether as object of scrutiny or in the making), meant that appreciating literature apart from its social context was not merely permissible but necessary as well, if writers were to be artistically effective. The supremacy given to the text swung the debate in favor of Villa’s nontraditional aesthetics.[v] While New Criticism meant the short end of the stick for social issues (although this wasn’t true of writing in the Philippines), it did force writers to pay close attention to craft, to the “literariness” of their works. But since the fundamental changes wrought in the national consciousness by the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, from the 1970s to the mid-eighties, and the aggravation of persistent social and political problems, the debate has been rekindled.
Nevertheless, it would be reductive thinking to categorize the poems one way or the other. Good poets, natural subverters of dogma, render the debate, and any pigeonholing, superfluous. The best example I can think of is Emmanuel Lacaba who, having joined the New People’s Army in the 1970s after acquiring a Byronic reputation in Manila, was at the age of twenty-seven treacherously shot by a military patrol after his capture in 1976. His early works are evidence of a tremendously gifted bard; they can also be easily seen as the writings of an “aesthete.” However, the works composed after he went underground (many of which were written in Pilipino) retain a lyrical tone even as they grapple with highly political issues. His last poem, “Open Letters to Filipino Artists,” a magnificent three-part work finished two months before his death, is also his best, a moving testament to the revolutionary spirit of the poet himself and of the masses. The third and last section, with its brief quote from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” is unrivaled for the way it seamlessly weaves lyrical intensity and political fervor. There can be no question that as the poet wrote this he was for one transcendent moment both the incarnation of past Filipino revolutionaries and a modern man schooled in the ways and tongue of the west.
The flux that characterizes Philippine society today is as great as any that has gripped it in the past. It will certainly affect the future of English in the Philippines but precisely in what way is extremely difficult to predict. Change, as the recent tumultuous events on the global stage have shown, has a way of thumbing its nose at prediction. Certainly as a language English has set down roots. Just as there is “Spanglish,” there is also “Taglish”— a conversational mode where speakers shuttle effortlessly between Tagalog and English and where English words have been Filipinized. The use of English may have begun, as Francisco Arcellana points out, as a “historical mistake,” but by the thirties “the Filipino writer in English may be said to have mastered the language well enough to enable him to observe the life around him without the language interfering. … he felt he had sufficient control of it to be able to look at his material with a clear vision, unobstructed by language only partially possessed.” He goes on to note that “the writer is a writer exactly because he sees with language, not just with his eyes: only that has been which has been verbalized. The harsh truth is that the writer is a writer exactly because he lives with words: until experience is transfigured into words, it is not experience.”[vi]
Many nationalists would eliminate this “historical mistake” altogether, relying on arguments traditionally used against Spanish that appeal to a vision of the Filipino as untainted by foreign influences. More pragmatic nationalists simply point to the enormous gulf that separates the mass of readers of Pilipino and other indigenous languages from English-language readers. The latter is a strong argument, but it is an argument not so much against the use of English as for a wider use—and appreciation—of the various main languages of the archipelago such as Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Indeed, it is not uncommon for many of our writers to write in two languages, including English. If after all it is the writer’s prerogative to use the language(s) most suited to his or her temperament, then the question isn’t so problematic as it seems. I quite agree with Tinio when he writes, “And … the best thing for the Filipino writer in English is to write in English. If tomorrow I suddenly decide to read nothing but Tagalog poems, perhaps even write Tagalog poems—well, isn’t that nice? Perhaps I will, and perhaps I won’t, but whatever I choose to do is certainly nobody else’s business.”[vii]
Ironically, a significant portion of the literature that contributed to the debate on nationalism, or served to fan its flames, has been written either in Spanish or English, from the anticlerical Spanish novels of the nineteenth-century reformist and genius Jose Rizal (he was executed by the Spanish in 1896) to the continuing critiques in English of Philippine society by nationalist historian Renato Constantino.
The debate over language and identity continues. Personally, I find the idea of cultural diversity appealing, although it may seem like pointless confusion to others. And perhaps, having been raised in a multicultural society, I am making a virtue out of a historical condition. Still, as boundaries disappear and cultures become more fluid than ever, diversity will be the keynote of a global community even as it strives to become unified. In the case of the Philippines, by wishing our intracultural differences weren’t so pronounced, we strain after a false homogeneity. Is it that we lack, or that we have too much? The daunting challenge of a twice-colonized people is to assimilate constructive aspects of the past and forge a new identity that unstintingly acknowledges history, but in ways that liberate rather than constrict us.
One thing is evident: Philippine writers in English know better than to expect a mass audience in their home country, partly for reasons discussed and partly because of the absence of a viable publishing industry. The books in English published in the Philippines stand little chance of international distribution. There are a few distributors here and there, but these cater to a specialized audience. Being published outside of the country, then, is prized not so much for its cachet as for the opportunity of tapping into a much greater reading public. Of course, to be shut off from a wider audience is not the mere result of market mechanisms but more precisely of a lack of empowerment, the consequences of which the late great film director Luis Buñuel in his autobiography, My Last Breath, clearly saw: “It seems clear to me that without the enormous influence of the canon of American culture, Steinbeck would be unknown, as would Dos Passos and Hemingway. If they’d been born in Paraguay or Turkey, no one would have ever read them, which suggests the alarming fact that the greatness of a writer is in direct proportion to the power of his country. Galdos, for instance, is often as remarkable as Dostoevsky, but who outside of Spain ever reads him?”[viii]
This anthology is a small but, I believe, important gesture toward addressing the disparities in dissemination that exist between Third World literatures and those of the West. It also represents in some way a creative subversion of the Thomasites’ efforts, in a way they never dreamed of. The language they brought with them almost a century ago is not the language that exists today. Language survives and flourishes as a mutable form, or not at all.
In the long run, what endures in the physical language is the language of the spirit. Surely it is enough that the creative minds behind these stories, these poems, are leaving their unique imprints to be noticed and remarked upon by the society they lived in, and by the society that will come after. I hope the reader who comes to these works fresh will be enlivened and pleased, and that the reader already familiar with them will have memory not only delightfully rekindled but added to.
I would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for lending me hard-to-find books or for facilitating access to certain libraries: Reynaldo Alejandro, Luis Cabalquinto, Nick Deocampo, Jessica Hagedorn, Prospero Hernandez of Rutgers University Press, the Philippine Center, Ninotchka Rosca, Jack Salzman and Ian Moulton of the Center for American Culture Studies, Bart Suretsky, and Ted Tanoue.
My gratitude as well to my editor Kenneth Arnold, and to David Friedman and Virgilio Reyes for their invaluable comments on the draft of my Introduction.
NEW YORK CITY
Luis H. Francia is a poet and a nonfiction writer. His latest volume of poetry is Tattered Boat, released in 2014. His poems have been translated into several languages. He has read at numerous literary festivals and most recently at the XIth International Festival of Poetry (2015), held annually in Granada, Nicaragua. His nonfiction works include Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, winner of both the 2002 PEN Open Book Award and the 2002 Asian American Writers Award, and Memories of Overdevelopment: Reviews and Essays of Two Decades. A collection of his most recent nonfiction, RE: Recollections, Reviews, Reflections, was just published this summer. He is on the faculty of Asian American Studies at New York University and Hunter College. He teaches creative writing at the City University of Hong Kong.
[i] Mark Twain, “The Philippine Incident,” quoted in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1992), 50.
[ii] Bienvenido Lumbera and Cynthia Nograles-Lumbera, Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology (Manila: National Bookstore, 1982), 109-110.
[iii] Edward Said, “On Jean Genet’s Late Works,” Grand Street 9, No. 4(1990), 38.
[iv] Rolando Tinio, “Period of Awareness: The Poets,” in Brown Heritage, ed. Antonio Gella Manuud (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967), 618.
[v] Gemino H. Abad, “Reading past Writ,” in Man of Earth: An Anthology of Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, 1905 to the Mid-1950s., eds. G.H. Abad and E.Z. Manlapaz (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1989), 9.
[vi] Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 29.
[vii] Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez, The Writer and His Milieu (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1984), 63.
[viii] Pura Santillan-Castrence, “The Period of Apprenticeship,” in Brown Heritage, ed. Manuud, 548.
[ix] Abad and Manlapaz, eds. Man of Earth, 30.
[x] Richard Croghan, S.J., The Development of Philippine Literature in English (Quezon City: Alemar-Phoenix Publishing House, 1975), 6.
[xi] Santillan-Castrence, “The Period of Apprenticeship,” 551.
[xii] Lumbera and Nograles-Lumbera, Philippine Literature, 103.
[xiii] Herbert Schneider, S.J., “The Period of Emergence of Philippine Letters (1930-1944),” in Brown Heritage, ed. Manuud, 583.
[xiv] Lumbera and Nograles-Lumbera, Philippine Literature, 235 ff.
[xv] Francisco Arcellan, “Period of Emergence: The Short Story,” in Brown Heritage, ed. Manuud, 607-608.
[xvi] Tinio, “Period of Awareness,” 619.
[xvii] Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Fontana, 1985), 222.
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