Notes on the 13th Iligan Workshop

DIYANDI - DIYANDI By Linda Kintanar-Alburo () - May 28, 2006 - 12:00am
May 25th we finished the 13th National Writers' Workshop of Iligan. Every year, fifteen young writers from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao come together and subject themselves (necessarily, the organizers tell them, if they want to survive as writers) to a four-day (used to be five-day) scrutiny of their best poems or short story or play. Ready to be "burned at stake," they undergo a baptism of fire that the writers' workshop has been called.

Sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) and managed by the MSU-IIT, the Iligan workshop is one of three national workshops held yearly in the country. Conceived by the Mindanao Creative Writers Group, Inc., it has "graduated" around 190 young writers. Most, if not all, of the Cebuano alumni among them had first tried the local Faigao Memorial Workshop run by the Cebuano Studies Center of USC, where students and young professionals meet veteran writers in Cebuano and English. After wading the Cebuano literary sea together, they felt ready to try the waters at Iligan, where they sit with writers in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Waray and, lately, Chavacano. Such exposure to fellow writers from other parts of the country, according to a fellow from Manila, is a source of wonder to everyone that they should speak the same "language" though in different tongues.

The Iligan workshop has undergone several phases. From one partially organized by Manila writers like Cirilo Bautista and Ricky de Ungria (who has since moved to UP-Mindanao), it has now evolved into something like a writers' processing center for the south. Its panelists are from the South, mostly products of Silliman University, which started the creative writing workshop idea in the country, anyway. (This year, six of its seven panelists are Visayans who were once upon a time each connected with SU as student and/or writing fellow - Christine Ortega, Jimmy An Lim, Merlie Alunan, Chari Lucero, Vic Sugbo and myself.). Starting with keynote lecturers from Manila like the poets Jimmy Abad of UP and Ophie Dimalanta of UST, it has become aware that for its sustainability, the lecturers should now be alumni of the workshop itself. Thus, in 2004 the first alumnus lecturer was Charlson Ong and last year it was Vince Groyon. Both Charlson and Vince have won national book awards. For them, writing in English has opened the doors of publishing and awards.

This year, we are proud to know that the organizers had chosen Cebuano Myke Obenieta to give the keynote lecture (no, not in Cebuano but in English). Myke was a fellow of the Iligan workshop ten years ago exactly. Since then, he has won several prizes and gained the presidency of the writers' group Bathalad. He has also served as panelist in several workshops of the Visayas, including the Faigao Workshop where he was fellow a few times. It was a good feeling for us panelists to know that a few years from now we could retire and leave the workshop in the hands of the alumni.

The works submitted, however, are another matter. We have seen a gradual deterioration in the quality of the entries. Someone, we said, should gather those works of thirteen years and formulate the workshop's aesthetics. This means tracing trends, the languages used and their variants, the favorite genres, narrative and poetic styles, as well as writers' intentions. This year, for example, we note the lack of play entries (not that noone had submitted, but that not one qualified), more short stories than poetry, experimentation with chronology in narration, and a preoccupation with the world of technology. Well, why not? Who wants to write plays that noone will produce or much less publish anyway, and is there anything more obvious in our environment than the gradual taking over of the computer and other techno-ek-ek in our daily lives?

We were sorry that the entries have become more personal rather than socially contextualized, compared with the past. (In a recent column elsewhere Raymund Fernandez notes the absence of protest poetry.) The same youthfulness was there in earlier workshop entries, but it seemed to us panelists that there was more passion before. One particular story this year, by a nineteen-year-old, is set in a New Jersey university, its central character displaying self-absorption and fear of commitment (translated as freedom) and, as its author explained, is intended to show that having deep roots anywhere may be an obstacle to happiness because one is not free! Another story, of the sci-fi genre, shows the victory of the machine. Isn't that depressing? I have always told my students that literature is a celebration of life, and the human spirit should shine through somehow. Yes, you're right, those two are written in English. But shouldn't we worry that our young have such negative attitudes?

Our two Cebuano fellows, though, won awards in fiction and poetry (for the past four or five years, such annual prizes are given to the best writers in the workshop). Josua Cabrera's story "De Mano" made Hiligaynon panelist Chari Lucero exclaim that she actually understood the story, which uses a new language that, for want of a better word, we call Ceblish. Here's a paragraph: "Seguro nag-wait na ron siya nako." Nisandig ko sa sandiganan nga pinaduko ang ulo gitan-aw nako akong palm ug human gipislitpislit nako ako hand. Akong gipanguhaan sa mga gagmayng buling akong mga nails nga gikyutikan og violet. Nidiritso akong panan-aw sa salog. Akong gitutokan ang mga tiles. Pupareho sa tiles sa among apartment. Nahinumdoman nako ang kamot ni ate Mercy samtang nagbagnos sa salog sa among apartment.

Greg Fernandez' poem "Dakop-dakop" speaks with an unmistakable bisdak tone, opening with the line Dili ni yagayaga ang akong pahiyom nimo Inday. His other poem "Ethos-Thanatos-Paltos" is structured using a chain of cause-and-effect. The starting image of the boy speaker sitting beside the girl he likes (sa dihang nagtapad tang duha), is followed by stars in their eyes, which leads to thudding of his heart, etc., until he imagines kissing the girl, but the picture is spoiled by her slap. Thus it ends, repeating the first line but shifting what follows: sa dihang nagtapad tang duha/ sa pagsugod pa lang unta/ gipiyong ko na daan ang akong mga mata.

Being rooted in our culture is a must for the writers if they want to be significant and they must dig well into our own literary and artistic traditions. For example, a love poem in the workshop that addresses a bongo drummer and uses such foreign musical instruments as jhembe and ashiko, would be more meaningful if it used instead kulintang and kudyapi, which are still found in tribal villages. Those in the urbanized areas not familiar with the material aspect of our culture might well research the matter. The poet so motivated to use the resources of his own culture will find that pre-colonial lovers used to send personal messages understandable only to each other with the use of such instruments. Isn't that fascinating? (If you're so minded, you should read Fr. Alcina's account of the Visayan islands.)

There's Juan Pusong too, or his Tagalog equivalent Juan Tamad, or Pilandok of the lumads of Mindanao and Palawan. What a wealth of adventures their stories contain! Surely, more exciting grist for the writing mill than the adventures borrowed from the movies, because these are ours.

But whatever the writer's sources, one continues to write. Not for money, oh for recognition certainly, but always as one grows, because one must. To quote, as Myke's keynote lecture quotes from Gunter Grass: "A writer is someone who writes against the current of time."

AKONG BOTH CHARLSON AND VINCE CEBUANO CEBUANO AND ENGLISH CEBUANO MYKE OBENIETA CHARI LUCERO ILIGAN ONE WORKSHOP WRITERS
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