Filipino-ness in fiction
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - October 1, 2007 - 12:00am

The young entrepreneur Kenneth Yu, who has been bravely publishing a slim but important volume called Philippine Genre Stories (now on its third issue, against all odds), wrote me to raise the question of what makes a work of fiction Filipino. Apparently, this has been the subject of much debate among young writers, especially as it applies to non-realist or “speculative” fiction, as Dean Alfar prefers to call it.

Thanks to a link provided by Kenneth, I’ve been able to peer into some of these discussions, and they display all the understandable anxieties of writers seeking to achieve or claim a certain identity while remaining free to write as they please about whatever suits them. Is “Filipino” determined by material, language, birth, citizenship, place of publication?

I’m not about to adjudicate that debate; I can’t, and I doubt if anyone can. “Filipino-ness” is one of those things that will take more than the six blind men of Hindustan to figure out. But having been asked for my opinion, let me think aloud and venture a few ideas toward an answer.

There’s a part of me that believes in an all-inclusive definition. Anything written by a Filipino should qualify as Filipino literature. It doesn’t matter to me where it’s published, what it contains, or what language it’s written in. I don’t even care what passport the writer carries; citizenships and passports these days are flags of convenience, and while those choices may help shape the attitudes of their makers, you can argue that a Pinoy in Warsaw or West Covina could be as Filipino, or more Filipino, than some Pinoys in, uhm, Wack Wack.

Even these “more than” or “less than” qualifiers could be fruitlessly judgmental, because they already imply a set of standards by which we determine Filipino-ness. I think that Filipinos are all kinds of people — poor and rich, saints and crooks, timid and aggressive, smart and stupid, tall and short, lily-white and nut-brown. In other words — perhaps betraying my bias as a dry-eyed realist, especially in my fiction-writing mode — I don’t think of “Filipino” as a romantic ideal, but as a plain if complex description. (I might talk differently if I were writing a billowy speech for a politician, or taking a Filipino-American grandchild for a walk and a chat about the old country.)

What connects us as Filipinos is the land we came from and some experiences we’ve shared. Many writers will focus on those commonalities, and even raise them up as national traits or virtues — hospitality, resilience, religiosity, the whole Social-Studies shtick. But just as — if not more — interesting are the things that divide and differentiate us as a people and as individuals.

As a fictionist, I write about individuals, not types. I try to make those characters as unique and as memorable as possible. I don’t even think about things like “Character Q stands for this” and “Character M stands for that”; first of all, they have to be able to stand for themselves. Most of those characters are Filipinos — not because I think I know Filipinos, but maybe because I don’t, which is why I write about them. If a critic were to pore over my work for some paper to be delivered at a literary seminar in Singapore, he or she might observe that I often deal with the Filipino lower middle class — the kind of people for whom a gas-stove explosion or a case of diabetes could set a whole family back by one generation of social mobility — but I don’t write stories pondering those things; I think of the purple splotches left by diabetes on a man’s shins, and of a molten doll in the steaming ashes.

I suppose what I’m saying is, the “Filipino” in what we write is practically inescapable; it’s hardwired into our imaginations, and it’ll almost surely come out in whatever we put on paper. (The same should be true for the Burmese, the French, the Maldivians, whoever.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible for a Filipino to write a story or novel that bears absolutely no trace of Filipino-ness; you could live abroad long enough — in which case, you’d be better off writing about subways and mackinaws than carabaos and coconuts — or, even here and now, you could be so perfectly alienated that you could write a novel about medieval English warlords and warlocks. Nearly every semester, I have stories submitted to me pretending to take place in New York or Paris — nothing wrong with that, per se — but also as if they were written by someone from those places.

That’s where the attempt at mimicry fails pathetically, just on the level of language. In music or in art, you might be able to play like Rachmaninoff or paint like Pollock, and get away with it without anyone being the wiser. In writing, you can’t — your language will give you away, and locate you as surely as a GPS tracker. At best, you’ll leave a messy trail of purposeful evasion. Besides, like I tell these students, why even bother? There are probably 10,000 American writers out there trying to crash into the pages of the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. You’re not going to beat them by writing about a farmhouse in Iowa or gang life in Chicago with an English you borrowed from the Hardy Boys or picked up from watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When Eric Gamalinda broke into Harper’s with a short story in the 1980s, it wasn’t by posing as a chic Manhattanite, but by writing about how the denizens of Sampaloc, Manila awaited the fall of the Skylab space station. He knew that the material and its treatment were, in economic terms, his “comparative advantage.”

Whatever is perceptibly Filipino in our literature should be an asset and not a liability, especially in this age of creeping homogenization, when — thanks to the economic and cultural dominance of America — everything is beginning to look, sound, and taste alike, from burgers to verses. As soon as I say that, I have to add that this Filipino element doesn’t have to be another kapre or tikbalang (although one of the stories in the first issue of Kenneth Yu’s magazine did a great job with this idea); clichés of any kind degrade the writing, unless they’re being employed comically or subversively. This Filipino element doesn’t mean that your story has to be set in Payatas or Negros, or depend on the exoticism of tropic foliage. We can and should write about the world; it’s about time we did, given that we’re everywhere. I’d love to read a Filipino story or novel set, say, in Norway or aboard a cruise ship in the Bahamas.

And while I myself may be a hardcore realist (to me, all fiction is speculative, and I suspect that everyday life has more mysteries and wonders than can be found in distant galaxies), I’m not beyond appreciating the possibilities of Filipino science fiction and fantasy, for as long as the writer succeeds in making this 53-year-old curmudgeon believe that horses can sprout wings and doors can open to parallel universes. I get impatient with fantasies that spend 80 percent of their time on “worlding” and 20 percent on the unfolding drama. (I tell my students: to test your skills, write for the difficult reader, the one very much unlike you, and not your best friend who will be the easiest soul to please.) I’ll demand more than a localized version of some sword-and-sorcery tale; I’d prefer something contemporary, rather than historical or futuristic (again reflecting my personal bias), but something for which the science and fantasy are crucial elements, without which the story cannot yield its insight. I’d like the science to be manifest less in the gadgetry than in the culture of the piece—say, in the conflict between logic and faith. And for all its exploration of an uncertain future or an alternate reality, I’d like such a work to reflect back on our here and now — to be, as Angela Manalang Gloria put it in another context, “the gravity that ballasts me in space.”

This may be a bold statement to make, but I think that writers who know what they’re doing — whether they’re realists or fantasists — don’t worry about Filipino-ness and such, leaving that to readers and critics to discern and to sort out, if it’s all that important to them. It will always be there, in any work that acknowledges or emanates from the writer’s rootedness in a certain place and time. If it was never there to begin with, no amount of fakery is going to bring it out. You can make a big thing of Filipino-ness if you want to — in which case you might end up with a truly significant work, or just a noisy one.

When I write a story, I worry about plot and character — not about how that story will be labeled by somebody else. Writing a story that people will want to read again is difficult enough. Ultimately, the only nation that will matter to the writer is the one whose passport consists of the published book. As his student Allan Aquino remembers NVM Gonzalez saying, “Writers create their own nation, even if they’ve never set foot on it.”

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