Friday, September 11, 2015


Bino A. Realuyo introduces the Filipino Literature issue of The Literary Review
(Farleigh Dickinson University, 2007)

Personal Notes on Contemporary Filipino Literature in English

Fil-lit in English: Who's reading?

Nobody reads Filipino books, a literary agent told my author friend. The statement left him wordless for a minute but once recovered, he realized some truth in what the agent said. Interestingly enough, e-mail has allowed Filipino writers from the Philippines and the U.S. to begin a tradition of sharing lists of books they are reading. Unfortunately for them, they weren't reading each other's books. Similar occurrence in the Philippines among readers of literature: a grand preference for books published outside the Philippines, by non-Filipino authors. Bestseller lists in the Philippine bookstores rarely have Filipino novels.

In the United States, publishing a Filipino author is synonymous to saving an endangered species from extinction. After all, in the past two decades, there were only seven Filipino novelists published by mainstream American publishers. They were not the only ones writing about the Philippines, of course. There were also six non-Filipino authors, some of whom were British. I have not failed to share this issue with many Filipino writers I know. They gasped for a few minutes then the subject was changed. I wish I could tell them that my agent couldn't sell my novel in Great Britain. Too exotic, the publishers there said. But could I at least vouch for authenticity?

So goes a hundred years of Philippine literature in English. The new century will also mark Filipino-Americans as the largest Asian American population in the United States, two million strong. When ethnic writings are becoming a familiar wave in American and world literature, stories about the Filipino experience are almost never heard of. Publishers blame lack of readership. Two million Filipinos who have no interest in their own stories?

My friend's reaction to his agent was familiar, because I had been told the same. Filipino books don't sell, a mainstream publisher told me once when I was selling my first novel. But now I wonder-whose responsibility are we?

For Filipinos, the past few years were heavily laden with anniversaries, most of which were about wars--the Spanish-American War, The Philippine-American War (strangely labeled as the Philippine Insurrection in American history books), and the Philippine Revolution.

Even a hundred years later, one of these wars, the Spanish-American war of 1898--the country's ridding of its 350-year colonizer--is still the most cherished moment of the anti-colonials. It was indeed that era when Spain ceded its colonies to the United States that was in the mind and hearts of Filipinos when they celebrated the country's centennial anniversary in 1998. However, in 1898, the Philippines was hardly independent. Spain left the country lost, distraught, and in the hands of yet another colonizer, the United States.

Credit or blame the one hundred American teachers who arrived via the USS Thomas in 1901, if you will, but what a hundred years of education can do to a country! English soon became the medium of communication. The friars' Spanish, forgotten. English is spoken in all the thousands of islands in the Philippines. When islanders fight over regional differences; enter English for conflict resolution. And Taglish, of Tagalog and English extraction, is the perfect middle ground for the colonially-minded English speakers and the nationalistic Pilipinos.

Traveling through Latin America is for me going back in time, but also recognizing that in these countries, we have what the Philippines could have been, a Spanish-speaking country. What our culture has kept, our tongue has not. While Spain colonized the Filipino spirit, she never quite convinced the Filipino tongue. But America would eventually leave the country lost, distraught yet forever in the hands of its eternal obsession: Hollywood.

Enter Hollywood English

A song and dance culture, such as the Philippines, could not help but emulate the glitter of Hollywood. Filipino politics has since been a never-ending soap opera, with an all-star cast. It comes as no surprise that in the year 2000, the most visible politicians in the country weren't trained in academic institutions and communities, but by the silver screen.

The late Manuel A. Viray, the editor of the first Philippine issue of The Literary Review forty years ago, said in his introduction:

"... [W]e Filipinos carry our history and our burdens wherever we are, abroad or at home. Caged in some kind of a strange, exotic display--our children with brown skin but American accents--we startle other people; for they do not fully know us as we expect them to."

They do not know us.

Here in America, the Filipino diaspora has created a healthy literature of Filipino writing in English as well. The post-1965 wave of immigrants have now come of age and are choosing professions in the arts, including literature. The better, because most Americans don't know who we are. Knowledge of one's national history might as well be a prerequisite before living in the U.S. because one is very likely to be bombarded with the most ignorant questions. Even Latinos in the Americas don't now that Las Filipinas was one of their sisters. When I speak Spanish to them, they ask why I speak Spanish. When I tell them our names, they ask why we have Spanish last names. I often narrate a brief account of Philippine history, the basics: history like Puerto Rico's. So why do you look Chinese?

Sometimes we do not know ourselves.

We forget the power we hold over language. Three hundred fifty years of Spain, fifty years of America, three of Japanese, we have managed to keep over 700 dialects in the Philippines. English might be the language of communication, yes. But there are languages in every island in the Philippines today, spoken loud, written gracefully. My mother speaks four of them, including her native Chabacano. Filipinos growing up in the Philippines are most likely going to be at least bilingual. In Latin America, Spanish is the only living language. The Indian languages, if they exist and continue to survive, are spoken under their breaths. They are taught in schools for those interested. In the Philippines, in the shadow of English, the giant, are hundreds of languages and dialects spoken at home, in the streets, in war and in peace. While in the English tongue Filipinos become global, in their home languages, they become Filipinos.

Identity and Revolutions

The hundred years of Philippine writing has birthed a contemporary Filipino identity. The Spaniards, during their colonial reign, feared the education of Filipinos. This resulted in four hundred years of illiteracy among the natives except among the upper class mestizos who could afford to leave the country and attend foreign schools. For Spain, educated subjects would eventually find a way to be rid of their colonizers. Indeed, Jose P. Rizal, the Philippine national hero, proved their fear, writing two novels that inspired the most successful revolution against Spain.

But literature for many generations, be it in Spanish or English, was the domain of the cultural elite. Who else could afford to read and write but rich Filipinos whose families could afford to send them abroad for their education? Many of them returned to the Philippines becoming writers indeed, but heavily influenced by American literature.

In the Philippines, to speak English well is an identity in itself. It marks one's educational level, one's intelligence. Being schooled there, I had classmates whose English was so fluent they were feared. Their social status was immediately raised to altar level. The way Hollywood is, in Philippine society, an altar of gods and goddesses of half-white descent. Unfortunately, the problem it presented is precisely that: English as a language of literature is emulated, a subdivision of American English. It is not revolutionized, left unquestioned, yet raised to the Hollywood level, god-like.

The birth of Filipino-American literature came like a whirlwind of spears. In the United States, where language is a living form, Filipino-Americans take English as an opportunity to profess their cultural identity. English became Filipino. In many books published by Filipino-Americans, English became less pure, less anglicized, more prone to code-switches, almost as if in the mind of the writers, English was a translated version of their native tongue.

This new vibrancy in language has traveled far. Like the way Americans and South Asian Indians moved away from British English to create their own model, contemporary Filipino writers in both the U.S. and the Philippines are taking ownership of the English language. With that comes many changes, on the economic level as well. Now, Philippine literature is both egalitarian and colonial, both immigrant and national. Writing in English no longer chooses the economic background of the gifted. A great writer in English can rise from the lower classes. The well-traveled, American-bred Filipino writer can return to the Philippines and claim it as his homeland as well. And the Internet generation Filipinos in Manila can bravely take on the world, without leaving their country at all.
The new generation of Filipino writers will increasingly reflect these changes. Filipinos have experienced "globalization" before the word went mainstream, but now they will understand more the advantages of being of a chameleon culture. There will be more Jose Rizal types, more poets and writers: well-educated, globally-oriented, culturally-aware, political and most of all, with the ability to communicate through literature what it means to be Filipino today.

"Am Here": Filipino writer, lost and found

"Am Here" is the title of one of Jose Garcia Villa's books. I chose it for this collection because Villa was one of the most important Filipino writers in English, and was the first to make his mark in the American canon. He won many grants and awards during his prime. He, invented, the, comma, poems. Yet the new generation of Filipino writers does not know him. Worse, in this country where he made it, many American poets don't know he even existed.

The Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez said, "oblivion is the biggest fear of the poet." The disappearance of Jose Garcia Villa is more than a case of literary amnesia. It represents what we Filipinos face in world literature today. If we decide to claim our seats in the global gathering of writers, it is necessary to understand what has happened in the past one hundred years. Beyond that is where we are. But understanding the appearance of literature in English in the Philippines and its migration to the West is essential in our growth and recognition. Oblivion can indeed be our biggest fear. It shouldn't be our fate.

The Internet century will bode well for the Filipino writer. As represented on the cover of this collection by Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, in her conceptual "powerlines," poems and stories are being exchanged through cable wires. The Internet has allowed many Filipino-American writers to access literature in their home country. Writers based in the Philippines are now able to have regular dialogues with their expatriate colleagues. Reports on literary events in different islands in the Philippines are being reported via e-mail. I personally have met many writers in Manila through the hours I spend on-line. I am learning about their struggles there. History is being exchanged through modems. But it is just as quickly being absorbed, and from this process, a literary revolution will take root.

This anthology of writers was largely collected through e-mail. Here, you will find a new generation of writers from the Philippines and the United States. Without reading their bios, you will not know where they are from. The influences of American literature on Filipino writers in the Philippines are apparent in their pieces. They write English with ownership. English was our colonial language. It is now our language by choice, the language which unites us. In this collection, each writer has something important to share. Each one will profess, whether you like it or not, I am here.

—Manhattan, February, 2007


Bino A. Realuyo is the author of  The Umbrella Country (novel, Random House/Ballantine Readers Circle, 1999) and The Gods We Worship Live Next Door (poetry, “Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Award”, University of Utah, 2006), and the Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City (Temple/AAWW, 2000).   His literary works have appeared in The Nation, The Kenyon Review, Manoa, New Letters, The Literary Review, and several anthologies.  He attended graduate studies at Harvard University with a full fellowship from the Kennedy School of Government. Leaving Manila as a young teen, he has since spent most of his adult life in New York City and in latin american countries.   Follow him on Facebook:

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