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October 18, 2010


Gregorio C. Brillantes’ speech at the Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature
September 1, 2010

THIS is my favorite after-dinner story.

There was this Englishman, an anthropologist from the British Museum, who led an expedition into the heart of dark Africa. In the jungle, the explorers lost their bearings and were captured by a tribe of cannibals. The captives were later set free, but not the chief explorer, who was big, fat and most edible. And the last they saw of him in the jungle, the man was tied up and freshly washed next to a big pot of boiling water. So it was to their amazement when the fellow reappeared a few days later, staggering whole and intact and uncooked out of the jungle. How was he spared? Why was he freed?

“Simple,” said the chief explorer. “Before they could dunk me in the pot, I told the cannibal chief, if you folks eat me, you’ll have to deliver an after-dinner speech…”

Hey, like that Englishman, every writer is an explorer, ‘di ba? And to be an explorer, you don’t have to be an Englishman, do you? Must you?

And speaking of English and writers and books– just this morning, while poking around in our neighborhood Book Sale, it occurred to me that I should tell you people about what happened to my books, my collection of several hundred or few thousand books — more warehouse than library. A year ago this month, September 26, Ondoy launched that awful flood, monstrous floods across Metro Manila, and drowned and ruined and practically terminated that book depository. The floodwaters rose so fast I couldn’t even save The Distance to Andromeda and the novels of Frank Sionil Jose.

The flood at its worst was 12 feet deep, and all those books must have lain underwater for about 10 hours. What a mess — a catastrophe. But there’s no crisis or calamity that’s absolutely without some gain or recompense. Jimmy Abad, Jing Hidalgo and Menchu Sarmiento sent loads of relief books and magazines in lieu of sardines and noodles to this flood victim. And I learned a few good things about books. From the damaged misshapen books I now have stacked in the garage, I’ve realized that no matter the material condition of the book, it may look like last week’s ensaymada you sat on, so long as it’s legible, readable, it’s all the more important and precious. And there are three kinds of mold that attack water-soaked pages, brown, green and black, the last the most vicious that can be wiped off only with alcohol. And paperbacks can be twisted back into shape but not coffee table books, thick covers and fancy pages all stuck together like a slab of cement And in the piles of book survivors I have rediscovered several good books I’d neglected to read all these years, and many others I felt I had to reread. Like William Vollman, Toer, Murakami, Ha Jin, Le Guin, and Renato Madrid, Jessica Hagedorn, Kerima Polotan.

Sometimes I try to imagine, to recreate in my mind the exact design, structure and composition of that vanished library– a kind of hopeful literary exercise. So I recall all that to the last detail—all the novels of Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Anthony Burgess, Paul Theroux, John Updike. John Cheever, William Faulkner, Martin Amis, J.G Ballard, Ray Bradbury, etc. Shelves of Filipino books from Arguilla and Arcellana to Alfred Yuson and Jessica Zafra. Volumes of short stories, American, Irish, British, European, Russian, Japanese. And probably all science fiction published since the ‘40s or ‘50s; and history, religion, science, astronomy, politics, etcetera—all in English. Only three in Tagalog—Pete Lacaba’s Salinawit, Ricky Lee’s screenplays and an English-Tagalog Cebuano Dictionary. And it occurred to me, finally—wouldn’t all this number and nature and watery fate of my books, together with my own writing, provoke certain quarters, of the literati and academe, to ask, “Are you a Filipino writer?”

And: What is Filipino about your writing?
And: What should comprise true, genuine, authentic Filipino literature?”

MADAME Sylvia Palanca Quirino, Pillars of the Palanca Family, ladies and gentlemen, friends… It happens that in our country, we have two literatures. Two literary cultures, and so two communities or aggregations of writers and artists. One is the Tagalog, with it roots in the 19th century art and soil of Pandacan and Tondo. The other is the Filinglish, planted in the 1900s under the auspices of Governor William Howard Taft and the University of the Philippines.

(I say Tagalog, for that is the proud, noble and historic title of the language of May-nila and Balagtas. And I say Filinglish, for the language of empire we have colonized, possessed and made our own.)

The very existence and presence of twin literatures amounts to a state of affairs that is unique to the state of the nation, and the rest of the world. No other country or society or culture can boast of this singular and plural distinction.

Only in the Philippines, as people tend to say of such Filipino phenomena as the jeepney, sisig and adidas, and the major major diminutive phone calls to a Comelec operator on Election Day.

And only in the Philippines can one behold the spectacle, drama, production, whatever, of two literatures at odds, in conflict, in contention. Over the last 60 years of the Palanca Memorial Awards and probably farther back in the past, these literatures have been quarreling if not competing, fighting. Generally, genderly, genre-ly, the disputation is for the most part abstract, walang personalan, but with one seeming to campaign continuously against the other, to weaken or supplant or even abolish the other. Both Filipino in provenance and personnel, and sharing one and the same milieu and audience, they are yet different in almost every conceivable way, and never more so than in their differences.

If one can assign a formal beginning of this rift and tension and rivalry, I’d place it sometime in the late 1930s when Salvador Lopez, an Ilocano academician who couldn’t write in Tagalog, produced his landmark essay on socialist realism and proletarian literature, which our writers in English received with raised eyebrows but pleased the Tagalog and Capampangan dissidents of Quezon’s time. Or it might have been earlier in the 1920s with a potential confrontation that involved Jose Garcia Villa, Efren Litiatco and Jose Corazon de Jesus.

For my part, my first inkling of all this jazz was a good-natured talk with a writer-friend from the UP in 1954 or ’55 or just five years after the founding of the Palanca Awards. We were chatting about our first short stories to be published, his in Tagalog, mine in English, and he sort of scolded me for writing in English, and worse, about what he called the decadent middle class. Not long after that bit of a debate, there was a PEN conference where Andres Cristobal Cruz and Celso Carunungan almost came to blows — over Andy giving Celso’s novel another title: “Like a Small Brown Monkey.” Looking back, those tiny incidents already suggested the range of partisanship, perspectives and dimensions of the wide multi-level conflict.

The basic level would be, even in the normal course of things, the area of aesthetics, sensibility, form and strategy and craftsmanship. The writers of one camp, for instance, declaring that the others of a contradictory persuasion are failing in this or that aspect of writing. Or being slavish to foreign standards and styles, or to the old or the new criticism. Or not grounded enough in the indigenous paradigm of thematic values and local color. Krip Yuson might snort, Man, I just can’t figure out what the heck you’re driving at. And Doming Landicho could retort, Pa inglis-inglis pa kasi itong pare kong burgis. And Jing Hidalgo could go, Cool it, guys – I’ll instruct you to deconstruct the polysemic semiotic of your postmodern kuan. And Danton Remoto might say, Ayaw nga si Ka Tato yung parameters ng discourse na Kano, pero naku napakagwapo… And all because, it’s imputed or implied, our writers are faithful and loyal to one or another history.

Another history.

On the level of the historical or historicity is where the clash of literary cultures is most evident, pervasive and consequential. The so-called history from above, on the one hand, and a history from below, on the other; and both made concrete and narrowed down to focus on the works of Nick Joaquin and the writings of Renato Constantino. In Joaquin’s Culture and History, our history began with the coming of the conquistador and the friar in 1521 that brought to these islands Christianity and the Church and the santos and guisado and the arts and technics of a higher civilization and, through revolt and revolution, the rise of a nation mapped by Spain . And Aguinaldo not Bonifacio was the supreme hero of the Revolution and the war with the Americans. In Constantino’s The Past Revisited, Filipino resistance—colonial oppression, specifically the struggle of the masses, is what gives meaning to the national evolution of the Filipino people—a people’s history that gave rise to an increased national consciousness resulting in a qualitative change, the birth of the Filipino nation. And Rizal instead of Bonifacio proclaimed as the national hero symbolizes the colonial miseducation of the Filipino at the hands of the Castila and Kano. Both camps have critiqued each other as rigid, prejudicial, one-dimensional and misleading—apparently to no avail, for all concerned. And whether formal or merely tacit or even subconscious, fidelity to either interpretation of history has greatly influenced the moods, modes and manners of many a literary work, widening the gap and divisiveness.

It is in the sphere of language ultimately that the rift and conflict are demonstrably acute, seemingly determined, implacable, insoluble.

The poet, journalist and film writer Jose Lacaba dealt with this language feud and problema in an article in the Free Press: “ Just before I dropped out of college, I liked to annoy young writers who dreamt of crashing the New Yorker or the Free Press with labored Nabokov or Nolledo imitations and who were all under the delusion that they were destined to write what we called the GNF, or the Great Filipino Novel, by telling them they were wasting their time mastering the niceties of English. For there was no future in their efforts, posterity would be able to appreciate them only in translation. English, in the Philippines, was on the way out, I said, and would surely go the way of Spanish. Its days were numbered. I gave it fifty years or less.

“Today I am inclined to say ‘less’.” I’m giving English in the Philippines a decade at most (or till the year 1981). That’s a fearless forecast based on a concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

“Seven years ago, being myself afflicted with the GFN Complex, I wrestled with The Language Problem. In what tongue was I to express my Filipino soul? In what language was I to write the GFN that I thought was struggling to get out of my skin? Part of the reason I became a college dropout… was the conviction I had arrived at, that the language of my GFN could never be English. The characters I wanted to write about were people who spoke no English at all, or spoke it only when drunk. How could I make a jeepney driver curse the cop on the corner in English? I wrote about a housemaid once and though the story was accepted for publication in this magazine, Free Press, I thought it was funny to have a maid speak like a Maryknoll coed. None of the attempts made by established writers to render native speech in English could satisfy me.”

“I am talking of course, of the so called lower classes, those who have not had much of an education and can only afford the inexpensive pleasures of Tagalog movies and comic books. Higher up on the social scale. Higher up on the social scale,” said Mr. Lacaba, “one needs English to communicate and these are usually the people who are opposed to Pilipino as the national language, knowing as they do that it endangers their position as the current elite.”

And here is poet, critic, teacher and National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera on the language situation:
“In the bourgeois mind of the power elite, the interests of their small group represent the interests of the entire nation. What is good for their class is good for the entire masses…

“Perhaps the Philippine situation can never be fully understood by someone belonging to the power elite. The Westernization of those who have graduated from the university is practically complete. The students who have learned English easily are the same ones who have quickly embraced the culture embodied by the English language. They are the citizens alienated from their fellow Filipinos because they live in an artificial society, a society built on the principle and objectives imported through the use of English. It is surprising that many intellectuals believe that nationalism and the language problem are separate, that is possible to show concern for the country without supporting Pilipino…

“We keep worrying that Pilipino will cut us off from the world, but we are not bothered by the thought that English has kept us apart from our own people… As it is, English is the language of government leaders, of the rich, of the professionals. While a leader unavoidably stands out from those he leads, the two should never be kept apart. Neglect of the people’s needs or blindness to the nation’s true situation,” said Dr Lumbera, “ is the effect of the English language, which, instead of a being a bridge, serves as a fence separating the leader from the led.”

Let us hear it from critic and scholar Epifanio San Juan writing from Storrs, Connecticut, USA, where he teaches American Literature: “The death of Carlos Romulo in December 1985 signals the passing of three generations of Filipino intellectuals whose sensibilities bore the stigma of the colonial apprentice forever subservient to the possessor of the secrets of the English language. Linked with this mystique of Shakespeare’s tongue is the guild consciousness of the pariah craftsman. For example, Bienvenido Santos and NVM Gonzalez, cling to a petty commodity, or artisanal conception of literary production… they still seek roots in bygone rural Philippines seen from the eyes of Hemingway of Katherine Anne Porter—a rural space no longer mapped by American anthropologist but by the insurgents of the New People’s Army. Modeling their prose after Nabokov, Durrell, Pynchon, Barthe or Bertelme reproduces the illusory and mystified subjectivity of the Westernized Third World artist.

“US academic discourse still exerts a powerful influence on Filipino intellectuals unaware or uncritical of ideological constraints. Owing to the prejudicial insistence of American Filipinologists on the supremacy of English…canonical works of Anglo-Saxon literature serve as the matrix that guarantees and sanctions the legitimacy of native expression. Thus the Filipino experience is always an effect of an original, or primordial, act by a Western subject or agent…

“The vigorous cultural renascence sweeping the cities and countryside in the Philippines today, before and after the EDSA uprising, has resurrected the spectre of 1896 glimpsed by William Dean Howells in Rizal’s novels” says Dr San Juan. “It was a specter also intuited by Mark Twain in the resistance of the revolutionaries against the Yankee invaders in 1899, a specter foiling Wallace Ategner’s hope that Filipino literature will be a minor branch of American literature…” And so forth, and so on, and on to the Millennium.

I believe we all here present will agree with Dr. San Juan on that score: that Filipino literature whether in Filinglish or Tagalog, or any other Filipino language, is not and cannot and will never be a branch minor or major major of any other country’s literature. But how about those predictions — obits!– that English (and presumably our writing in English) would disappear from this country well before the end of the century? Our Tagalog compatriots might now say, “Yes, OK, joke only. English in the Pinas di disaparacido– buhay na buhay, dumami pa ang nacolonais na alayalay.” And as another friend, Cebuano fictionist Godo Roperos, was saying only the other day or was it last week: “The Ainglish languids eis here to stiy, niber mind da barios accints und grammar”—and it sure is, the language is very much around on this our Pinoy Peninsula — our multilingual archipelago… and as of last reports, over much of the world, with two-thirds of the world’s population outside the US and England knowing English or using their own form or variant of English, a global language indeed.

SO NOW as we face the concrete reality of the concrete situation, circa PNoy 2010, where does all that leave us? Where do we go with our pens and laptops and agenda from the here and the Peninsula?

Once upon a happy hour in Cinco Litros ages ago, I tried to discuss these things about Lumbera, San Juan & co. with Nick Joaquin and beery tipsy company. Señor Quijano de Ermita looked me in the eye in mock disgust and bellowed to the waitress, Neng, sampu pang beer para sa mga kolokoy. And more sisig and chicken wings!. That was one writer’s response to the whole shebang– and recalling it now, a very good one. Do not be disturbed, dismayed, distracted from the business at hand–, whether that be downing San Mig with sisig or composing a short story or working on a novel or helping the children of the ash-covered loam. Just do your thing, get on with the job, whether in Tagalog or English or Iloco or Cebuano or Hiligaynon.

The same old Nick de Manila told me a story about Karl Marx. God allowed the author of Das Kapital to come back to earth but would have to say just a few words and no more on CNN or BBC. And Mr. Marx said: Workers of the world — I am very sorry.

I think I can be more cheery and optimistic.

Workers of the word—Unite! You have nothing to lose but your faction and your friction and hopefully not your prose and your pants. And a world to gain, to explore, to expand—the cosmos of your heart and art and craft. Leave the polemics and propaganda to the politicos and the public relations ops in our ranks. In the end, in the space and stillness of the writing process, all else must be like the faintest fading echoes of sounds and furies affecting little or nothing. So come together, in spirit even if not in troth or in pact, as we are gathered here tonight, as one heterogenous assembly to honor and celebrate one multi-faceted entity, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. Unite—and write and work as one– to celebrate and honor our one and only true cause—the making and performance of literature.

So unless you would rather run for office or the hills, and after all is said and undone and turned upside down, there is only one left as the right thing to do– the only thing—which is to write well and beautifully, to write well and wisely and passionately; to write well and fiercely and tenderly. In a word, to write your masterpiece.

That I submit; that, we all know is what the Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature are all about—to encourage and recognize and reward the writer that he or she may offer us all, not a political manifesto or ideologicalpronunciamiento, but a literary masterpiece, a poetic or fictional or dramatic master work. The best and most appealing and memorable work of literature that a writer within his powers can create—in a lifetime—or a short span of time—or just some weeks or months of the year– before September.

Like the outstanding short stories and plays and poems and essays that have won for their authors tonight’s Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature. The award winners are the literary elite— masterful writers each with a masterpiece… the best in your class, the brightest in your category. Congratulations and more power!

Like Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco’s masterpiece– winner of the Palanca Grand Prize for the novel, and awarded the 2008 Man Asian Prize for the best novel in English, in all Asia. In the tradition of Noli Me Tangere— Ilustrado is a brilliant critique and majestic indictment of the Establishment, by which the novelist would seem to be telling us: to expose, oppose and help dispose of the cancers of our society, writhe not in cash struggle or wrath not in demo and manifesto– Write fiction—write marvelous magnificent fiction– write a Palanca Prize novel…

Rizal was the First Filipino. Rizal was the Greatest Indio Bravo. Rizal the Novelist was the Finest Ilustrado.

Let us have more ilustrados in our literature — luminous and illuminating in the creative sense — light bringers of the Filipino imagination — in Filinglish,Tagalog, Ilocano, Bicol, Cebuano, Bisaya, Hiligaynon. And please don’t call them the power elite — make that pawis sulit… they are a breed far distinct and apart from any sociopolitical class. A generation of the illustrious laboring in the vineyard of the Enlightenment…

To achieve and witness all that, we need not wait for the advent of the Filipino Utopia that some of us seem still to fantasize about and even fulminate on — an absolutely, exclusively Filipino society and culture with only one language and only one literature and only one party forever and ever, so help us God.

Lettuce hopia that all that is only pili nuts and talong in coming, not just a matter of cashew or mani, halo-halo at maiz con yellow ribbon will do.

Dakal a salamat. Dios ti agngina.
Madamo nga salamat.