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At the literary table

Picturesque and cultured Dumaguete is this year’s venue for the Taboan Writers Festival.

I’m here in Dumaguete City for Taboan, otherwise known as the Fifth Philippine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of writers from all over the archipelago, and even a few parts beyond. Dumaguete, of course, is inextricably linked with Philippine literary history as the home of the first and longest-running writers’ workshop in the country  the Silliman Writers Workshop, based in Silliman University  which explains its proud and rightful claim to be the “City of Literature.”

Scores of the country’s finest writers, especially in English, have passed through Silliman’s portals (in Silliman’s case, these are real portals, as iconic and as symbolic as the Oblation is to the University of the Philippines), thanks largely to Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, who started the workshop in 1962 after their return from the United States. I myself might not have thought of going back to school after having dropped out for ten years and of taking up fiction seriously after laboring as a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Silliman workshop, which I attended in 1981.

So holding Taboan in Dumaguete was in many ways a logical homecoming, and the fact that festival director Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega (who now teaches at MSU-Iligan) is a Silliman alumna helped things along immensely. The university administration and the city government were very supportive, and the festival began on an appropriately celebratory note with a parade around the city on Thursday morning, led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

But it was the keynote address delivered shortly after by the Cebuano scholar and writer Dr. Resil Mojares that best reminded me why it’s important for Filipino writers and academics to go out of Manila and listen to what the rest of the nation has to say if writers are to help in achieving that sense of nationhood that’s eluded us for ages. Resil - whose level-headed scholarship and clarity of thought I’ve always admired - spoke on “The Visayas in the National Imagination” (there was some confusion about the topic, but in the end it didn’t matter).

He spoke of how complicated the writer-nation relationship can be: “A writer’s relationship to his or her country cannot be one of blind faith or easy self-love. I think there is much in what the Preuvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says about his relationship to his native Peru that we can recognize as our own. ‘For me,’ Llosa says, ‘Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh, and full of the violence of passion… [a relationship] more adulterous than conjugal… full of suspicion, passion, and rages.’ Yet, for all these, Llosa confesses to a ‘profound solidarity’ with the country. He says: ‘Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet Cesar Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.”

That relationship can get even more difficult when the writer feels like a stranger or second-class citizen in his or her own country, as a writer working outside the national center might be made to feel. This dichotomy between the “national” and “local” (or “regional”) writer has been a longstanding point of concern and conflict in Philippine literature for which there have been no easy answers. Dr. Mojares couldn’t have illustrated the problem more clearly than in this excerpt from his keynote:

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Perhaps we have to bow to the historical fact that it is where power is accumulated and concentrated that the ‘nation’ is most effectively imagined. It is where the ‘local’ ascends to the level of ‘national.’

“The literary situation today is that writers and works have to be recognized in Manila for them to acquire the status of ‘national.’ The center exercises the power to canonize and consecrate. A Cebuano writer who publishes in a ‘vernacular’ magazine with a circulation of 30,000 is merely a ‘local’ writer, while one who publishes a book of English poetry in Manila with a print run of 750 copies is ‘national.’ So effective is Manila’s consecrating power that a writer may start out in Dumaguete or Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive.’ Dumaguete may be the ‘city of literature’ but it is not its capital.

“Some years ago, the poet-and-critic Virgilio (Rio) Almario asked me - with a hint of mischief and challenge - ‘Where’s the new Cebuano poetry?’ I did not have a ready answer but assured him that there was a great deal of fresh, exciting work being done by young Cebuano poets. But Rio’s question did tell me that much of today’s Cebuano-language poetry-that circulates in manuscripts, poetry readings, small local publications, and Internet blogs-remains largely invisible outside of Cebu and Cebuanos, and that we (Cebuanos) have been remiss in defining and projecting to a wider audience what in this poetry is distinct, different, and deserving of ‘national’ attention. Yet, the encounter with Rio did remind me that indeed one has to be consecrated by readers and critics like Rio for one to acquire the status of ‘national.’

I say this without malice. Rio is a friend. But such is the politics of recognition.”

The discussion got even more lively in the plenary session following Resil’s talk, which was devoted to the topic of “Your Place at the Writers’ Table,” around the idea that while a national literature should ideally be inclusive, many writers still felt left outnot just because of the cultural and political distance between the center and the margins, but also because of the generational divide, and perhaps even of sheer snobbery on the part of “established” writers unwilling to yield ground to younger, fresher talent.

I’d meant to keep quiet and let others do the talking, but was prodded for my opinion on this “insider/outsider” argument, which I understand had been a hot topic online. Not being on Facebook, I caught on to it late, and composed a response that I circulated privately, from which I’ll quote:

Small as it is, Philippine literary society is indeed ruled in a way by cliques, barkadas, orthodoxies, and prescriptions. In some cases, these institutions and conventions may have made it difficult for new, alternative, and dissident voices to emerge and be heard. 

I myself will indefensibly admit to being part of this ruling elite - I suppose by default, being the director of an institute of creative writing, a professor of literature, and a member of an NCCA committee that gives out grants. I’ve done well by the system (Silliman workshop, CW degree and MFA, Palancas, etc.) and the system, I think, has also done well by me.

But all this doesn’t mean that my mind is closed to new ideas or that I will shoot them down when I get the chance. Within the system, I have voted and even argued for writers and kinds of writing I personally don’t prefer, because I remain aware of what’s at stake, which is much larger than what I like. I have voted down my friends, denied them grants, and brought in people left out in the usual pollings, again because - as an old-time, squishy, hand-wringing liberal - I believe in fair play, imperfect as any cultural or political regime will always be. 

By and large, the system works, if getting ahead the usual way is all you want: join a workshop, write like your mentors, win a few prizes, publish a book or two. But I keep reminding my students that this isn’t the only way to writing fulfillment and happiness, and that they’re free to choose other paths and listen to other gurus  but also, and again, that the alternatives won’t be easy. We all make our own choices  but we should do so with full self-awareness, mindful of the costs and benefits to ourselves and to society.

How important is writing to you? Whom or what do you write for? What do you expect to get out of writing? How do you want to be seen or remembered by others through your writing? I’ve answered all these questions for myself - the bottom line is that writing is my livelihood and profession; I’m less a romantic than a realist - but I can’t hazard an answer for others. As a member of the barkada, the best I can do is to enlarge the table and to bring others to it - if they even want to be there, in the first place; if they don’t, well, perhaps they shouldn’t mind too much if we dine in peace and enjoy each other’s company - and maybe even manage to write a good book or two on the side.

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E-mail me at penmanila@yahoo.com and check out my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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