Arts and Culture

A language for nationalism?

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson -
Of course friends called, texted, e-mailed their support. Some, not all, agreed with the points I raised in that column a fortnight ago. Most were privileged to read the pig Latin in my flak vest, so their offers of assistance stayed private. Some actually said: Hey, own up, you’re playing rope-a-dope, right?

Well… Okay, let’s be a tad bit serious. A lot of hackles have been raised, for which I’m sorry. No intention there to raise the rage level on this planet. But I should have known better than to provoke a bit of a firestorm over "nationalism." So here’s clarifying some points, in response to those raised.

A pity that poet Joi Barrios’ intended letter-to-the-editor didn’t see print. Not sure she did send it, but it got first play on the Internet. Basically, Joi took umbrage over my apparently reckless endangerment of Bien Lumbera’s person, given the recent crackdown on perceived enemies of the state.

I’d like to make this clear. I didn’t label Bien a communist. Even if he were, which I don’t know, nothing wrong there. It’s legal to be a commie in this country. In any case, I’m not into that sort of vintage labeling. What I more than inferred, and decried, was the "nationalist" posturing (being careful now to employ quotation marks, as an indication of both eyebrows raised) of his fan base.

The passages in my column that quoted what I’ve heard in beerhouses and then some (about "communist candidate" and nothing really memorable in his works, something like that) were meant to add some flavor of reportage. Oh yeah? What kind of reportage is that when it doesn’t identify the speakers? Tsismis reportage, that’s what. Hearsay, firsthand.

No need to reveal the identities of those from whose lips I heard those views, to which I must confess a level of tacit agreement on my part.

But Joi may have been in her rights to raise the alarm. As for "red-baiting," no, I assured her by SMS, I’m not into that either. Just as I don’t have "patrons" whose desires or policies I could’ve been carrying out. Why, I don’t even dislike communists. What I didn’t text Joi was that I found them rather funny at best.

The Left, with its wide gamut of ideological predilections, I respect as a whole, albeit not entire. I told Joi that I’m with her and "them" when it comes to mounting any civil struggle against the "pang-gigiit" against Representatives Beltran, Ocampo and company.

Okey naman kami ni Joi matapos ng mahabang diyalogo sa selfon. Sa wari ko.
She said I better clarify all of that. I agreed. So here it is: I wasn’t red-baiting – which would be an even funnier proposition than any perceived goals of the intended prey. And I’m not a Commie-hater, since hardly any gander gets up to ever replace bemusement.

As for the reported comments on Bien’s candidacy for the National Artist award, to relate these to any Commie witchhunt was a stretch, I thought. Maybe I’m not given to paranoia where I sit or stand. But if it alarms friends and colleagues alike, then I regret having included those remarks.

What I found admirable in Joi’s heartfelt communication, in private, was her loyalty to her mentor Bien, whose influence she acknowledges with great appreciation. In gist, she said she couldn’t allow anyone to attack Bien and get away with it.

Again, I assured her I hadn’t been on attack mode. It was her rejoinder that was "banat," I said, before adding facetious remarks like "buti na lang banat na’ng mukha ko" – to which she replied something about "Botox." And that’s how our SMS dialectics ended.

Next came a diatribe from Gary Devilles of Ateneo something or other, in very angry Filipino. I can’t comment on his protest over what I wrote on the National Artist awards, as I sense from his language that he’s so used to denounce anything in high dudgeon. Aba’y palengkero daw ako, eh siya yung nag-gagalaiti at halos makita na’ng tumiklop ang mga litid sa leeg.

Rosario "Chari" Lucero’s letter, published in this space last week, I can appreciate for its relative elegance and elements of humor, irony, sarcasm and hyperbole. The valid points raised are marred somewhat by academically liberal – in more ways than one – leaps of deconstruction. I never equated "nationalist" with "communist." That inference she made on her own. Neither have I ever put myself "forth as a spokesperson for Philippine literature." Maybe for beerhouses, even as I favor whisky.

I agree that Dr. Lumbera enjoys a "primary position" in "Philippine culture and literature." Never mind the academic "canon" to the left and right of us. Her proposal to thresh out matters of literary evaluation in a conference would be welcome had it not betrayed unfair terms of engagement, as well an assumption that a rep from the lush life can’t partake of an educated exchange.

Jonathan Chua was most civil, for which I am thankful. He too raised valid points that can be properly addressed, most soberly indeed. He credits Dr. Lumbera with having co-pioneered the "Bagay" poetry movement together with the multi-genre genius Rolando Tinio. All I know, in my semi-illiteracy, is that some lines of Tinio’s "Valedictory sa Hillcrest" are still recited from memory by lushes like myself. I’m sorry, but I can’t recall a single poem title by Bien. True, he still qualifies as an artist, because he has written exemplary librettos, some early poetry, and voluminous critical work.

I don’t dismiss all that. Bien deserves to be a National Artist all right, but for his art and not for his perceived "nationalism." (More on this later.) What I maintain is that if the choice should be between Cirilo Bautista’s and Bienvenido Lumbera’s totality of artistic merits, the former would undoubtedly be more formidable. Bien has been a scholar-critic more than a literary artist. But his lifework and influence have also been formidable, for which he also deserves the highest award imaginable. And yet, to my mind, not over Cirilo. The problem, as I saw it, is that ideological accommodation played a part in the choice.

I would’ve been very surprised if Paolo Manalo hadn’t joined the Internet critics. This fellow has long had it in for me, for reasons we both know but which would be irrelevant to mention here. I just wish that as literary editor of Philippines Free Press, Manalo makes a better effort at ensuring that contributors receive their fees, for it is a more fundamental responsibility than writing precipitate poetics.

Reuel Aguila was right. I made dabog. Naiintindihan ko rin kung saan siya nanggagaling. Nirerespeto ko ang kanyang kakayahan at mga akda, at ang bunga ng kanyang batikos ay isa na rin sa aking pinagsisisihan. Hindi ko naman gustong makipag-away sa mga Filipinista. Dapat nga tayong magtulungan.

As expected, the most sophisticated and enlightening take on the brouhaha has been Adrian Cristobal’s. He intelligently takes me to task, but seems to exonerate me even before he engages in subtle excoriation. Whee! And I can only agree with his closure:

"We should judge writers by their works alone, lest we consider Ezra Pound and Carlos Bulosan to be bad writers because one was a fascist and the other a communist.

"That risk belongs to the philistine. May their tribe decrease!"

Others have joined the fray in strange ways, like e-mail-baiting in private and then sharing the exchange in public, while masking themselves with pseudo-addy-nyms. Oh, well. Blithe as blithe goes, to each his perverse pleasure.

Now, for more provocation, possibly, owing to the sensitivity that has only led to token politeness, and, well, tokenism.

But let’s get "nationalism" out of the way muna. The reason I place that term within quotation marks is that I find the manner in which it is commonly claimed credit for as unbearably proprietary. The trouble with "nationalists" is that they love to proclaim themselves as such, as if everyone else who doesn’t cannot be a nationalist.

It’s become a matter of seething too much, denouncing too much, bearing too much of a humongous chip on the shoulder for too long, while taking too much credit for being the only lovers of country.

I agree with Jimmy Abad. (Editor’s note: His letter to the editor appears on page F-3.) There’s no monopoly on nationalism, which is not gauged by the language one uses or where one lives. I love our country for all its faults, our faults, and our own brand of occasional idiocy. But I do not have to proclaim myself a "nationalist" to the exclusion of most everyone else. And I’m tired of having to walk on eggshells due to PC awareness of sensitivity.

Ma. Luisa Igloria, recent winner of the highly prestigious Stephen Dunn Award for Poetry, is no less of a nationalist for writing in English, let alone for choosing to teach literature out there in Virginia, USA. By the by, she competes in a much larger, more challenging arena. And yet she does us all proud with her Filipino poetry in English. Heck, make that poetry, period.

When Eric Gamalinda gets a story accepted by Harper’s, it’s an honor for all Filipinos, whether they write in Filipino, English, or Spanish. Heck, whether they write at all.

I am not advocating that we all write in English. I try to write in Filipino, but am better trained in English, as was most of my generation that grew up in Manila. Let us strengthen Filipino, and all other languages in our regions. Let us not however equate writing in Filipino (or Tagalog), or favoring the writing of Filipino (or Tagalog), with stronger or more authentic nationalism.

The demographics alone are against that sort of reckoning. We still have more Cebuano speakers. Ilocano writers write in Ilocano, Ilonggos in Ilonggo or Hiligaynon, Bicolanos in Bicolano. Sure, there are exceptions: a few Ilocanos, Ilonggos and Bicolanos write or also write in Filipino. But more of the same can and do write in English.

Contrary to doomsayers for English literary use at the height of the bilingualism debate of the ’70s, greater numbers of Filipino poets and writers are writing in English, I believe so much more than the increasing numbers of writers in Filipino. That’s because Filipinos outside the Tagalog region have not yet reached any proficiency in Filipino. Someday it’ll happen, when the electronic media – radio, TV and film – manage to eventually improve that proficiency.

For now, there are hardly any venues for literature in Filipino. Hardly anyone even engages in travel writing in Filipino, or creative non-fiction in Filipino. Which is not saying that it’s an inferior language. It’s just younger than major literary languages of the world.

When a Filipino writes in English, he necessarily takes on a tougher challenge – that of participation in the continuing evolution of a language that has been used for centuries, by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje.

When a Filipino writes in Filipino, yes, he is writing in the language of his blood, and yet – and this is no invidious comparison – he is upholding, enhancing and reinventing a much younger tradition that "only" goes back to Balagtas and Lazaro Francisco and Amado Hernandez and Virgilio Almario.

When Cirilo Bautista writes in English, he vies against the standards of excellence that continue to be set in that yet dynamic language. When Bienvenido Lumbera champions Filipino literature almost to the exclusion of the merits gained by Filipinos in literary English, I believe he does a bit of disservice to scholarship and criticism.

Three years ago, I formally argued for a National Artist award for Virgilio Almario because I believed in the total creative worth of his literature in Filipino. I even said it was high time another NA award went to a writer in Filipino, after Amado Hernandez. I would have argued the same for Dr. Lumbera, but not at the expense of Dr. Bautista.

Of course all this has been moot, even when I first wrote on the matter (which is why Reuel is right in saying na nagdabog lang si ako) – given the fact that Lumbera was already chosen as the sole finalist for Literature. Even as this is being written, he could well be on his way to gaining the award. I cannot begrudge him or any other writer or Lotto winner any prize.

On an aside, as I texted Jonathan, bigyan naman sana ko ng konsiderasyon na sa tanda kong ito, alam ko namang ang nakikitang pagbatikos ko kay Bien ay malamang na mag-garantiya na maging NA nga siya. Alam naman natin ang sikolohiyang bumabalot sa mga nagdedesisyon.

No claiming of any credit, however, in hindsight or with foresight. I just had to say what I believed in, maybe because I have the guts, or chutzpah, or moxie, or apog. Na magdabog.

But again, at the risk of offending sensibilities, even those of my ka-barkadang mga Filipinista, uulitin ko ang aking paniniwala na mas mahigpit pa rin ang hamon ng pagsusulat sa Ingles. Kayat ang dapat ay galingan pa ang pagsulat sa Filipino. Mas madaling mangyari ito kung ilalapag na lang muna ang bagahe ng ideolohiya.

Sa ganun ay dadami ang magsusulat ng mga kaakit-akit na kakaibang mga tula tulad ng mga gawa ni Freddie Salanga, Pete Lacaba, RayVi Sunico, Beni Santos at Allan Popa – na siyang mga aral din sa Ingles at nagamit ang kanilang natutunan dito. O mga akdang pang-awit tulad ng mga hinahangaan natin mula kina Heber Bartolome at Joey Ayala – at panibagong hinahangaan kong si Israfel Fagela ng sisikat na bandang Los Chupacabras.

To my calumnists, please understand that not everyone can have a regular newspaper column. Some of us are asked to fulfill the role. I try to popularize literature, mostly Philippine – more often those in English because there are more works in English. I am not a critic but a reviewer and a tsismoso. I also try to be light, which is why I dub someone like the young Angelo Suarez "the Kobe Bryant of Philippine Literature." Sorry if I can’t similarly laud efforts to tack on to a topical-trendy term like "jologs" for perishable poetry.

I am so sorry to Bien and Shayne for the hurt I caused. Couldn’t help it; it couldn’t be helped.

Let me end with gravity and flippancy: two sides of the same coin of eloquence (ahem). "The language of nationalism is in the heart, while the art of literature is in the mastery of universal craft." That is mine. "Thanks for the intellectual discussion. It’s always hard to defend a losing argument. But you did a decent job of it." – From the Cleveland Cavaliers message boards, and which we’re all free to say to one another.









  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with