Arts and Culture

Books briefly noted

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

I devote this week to a review of select literary titles in English. A few words about this literature: we were introduced to the English language shortly after the end of the Philippine-American War in 1902 and took to it gladly and without opposition for English made all of us equal. By the 1930s after just one generation, we had created a body of English literature, to wit: Paz Marquez Benitez, Paz Latorena, Jose Garcia Villa, Salvador P. Lopez, etc.

From the very beginning, our writers in English faced tremendous challenges, among them, how to sound Filipino, particularly in the dialogues, how to recapture distinct Filipino nuances, descriptions in English — in other words how to provide a truly Filipino identity to the emergent literature. The late Fr. Miguel Bernad, S.J. observed that a unique Filipino English was already a reality, just as American, Indian, and Australian English have a different timbre from the original English.

In time, too, after World War II literary workshops imported from American academe, and the “New Criticism” purveyed by US-trained academics proliferated. Personally, I objected to both for they tend to homogenize our literature. Ditto with English literature courses and English Ph.Ds.

Now, even with the limited venue for literature in English, has our English literature truly developed?

The proof of the writing is in the reading. Here then are my observations on some of the latest by our authors.

Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn

Akashic Books, New York, 237pp

This collection of short stories celebrating Manila’s underside belongs to a series set in several cities all over the world. It is edited by America-based Jessica Hagedorn whose Dog Eaters I found repulsive because by its very title, it disparages Filipinos in American eyes.

This collection contributes to that deprecating genre that can only be justified if the work is artistic. Unfortunately some of the stories in the collection should appear only in juvenile outlets.

Sabina Murray, Marianne Villanueva and Jose Dalisay are established writers but I have a feeling they were harried and their contributions were written by their left feet. Some of these stories seem to have been massaged in workshops. They lack spontaneity, lyricism. Some need closer editing:  She had become a rich woman. She is always a woman isn’t it?

There are several exceptions, of course, among them the stories of Eric Gamalinda, Gina Apostol, Lourd de Veyra, and Sarge Lacuesta.

Lysley Tenorio’s, “Aviary” is more social commentary than literature. Tenorio is an excellent writer (see note on his collection of short fiction below) but in this story, written in the first person, the narrator is a slum-dweller. It would have been more effective if it was written with simplicity (not simple) like the old William Saroyan or Carlos Bulosan stories.

The only comic contributor here, Budjette Tan, is obviously talented but has difficulty drawing Malay faces. He should look closely at Carlos Francisco and Fernando Amorsolo in their traditional rendering of Filipino features. Japanese manga artists give most of their characters large eyes, even Caucasian facial features. But readers recognize them as Japanese.

The Fire Beneath, A Novel by Almira Astudillo Giles

Carayan Press, San Francisco, 405pp

This story is based on actual events in Mindanao in the Eighties. A bulldozer operator accidentally dug up an ancient hoard of gold, part of which is now on display at the Central Bank. The exquisite gold artifacts illustrate the craftsmanship, and scientific culture of the Filipinos long before the Spaniards came. The effort to embellish this fact with the illustrious habiliments of fiction is laudable, but the telling is not. The author’s attempt is tedious and dull; like many contemporary novels now, it has been robbed of its tension by too much attention to craft and unnecessary detail. If a third of it were excised, I think it would be more readable.

The Mango Bride, A Novel by Marivi Soliven

Penguin Group, New York 341pp

The title of this novel is intended to give it distinction and flavor. But mangoes are raised all over Southeast Asia, even in Mexico. If the intention is to draw attention to its uniqueness, I would have titled it, The Sampaguita Bride. This is quibbling. This is a very readable novel, a literary whodunit. I don’t want to rob the reader of the pleasure of unraveling the fate of two Filipinas, Amparo and Beverly, who immigrate to the United States to start a new life.

The author’s penchant in using Tagalog in the conversation is unnecessary, even disruptive. It gets in the way of smooth reading like craters in the asphalt. Is is always understood that the conversation is being translated from Tagalog. The trick is to see to it that such dialogues retain the flavor, the nuances of Tagalog itself or whatever language the characters speak.

This novel won the Palanca Award for the novel in 2011. It is one more addition to the birthing peak of our literature in English.

Monstress, Stories by Lysley Tenorio

Published by Harpers and Collins, New York 224pp

Tenorio, with this collection, tells other writers who read fiction as critics and students of writing that he has arrived. Tenorio is brilliant; he handles the narrative form with mastery. He knows narrative, how to compel a reader to read through to the very end. His language is spare where it needs to be, without his stories losing depth and poignancy.

My favorite in this collection is “L,mour,” the migration of a Filipino family to California, their entry into a society so vastly different from what it left behind.

Tenorio is capable of performing science-fiction magic that seems rooted in reality. I hope that he will persevere without being tagged as a Philippine-American writer but as a writer who belongs to the world.

The Distance for Rhymes and Other Tragedies by Joel Pablo Salud

Short Stories, University of Santo Tomas Press, 150pp

Joel Pablo Salud, editor of the weekly Graphic, not only edits the magazine and writes those weekly articles — he has squeezed time to write these well-crafted stories that resonate because they are so thoroughly contextual, they depict and probe deep into contemporary life.

Joel did something unnecessary, though. In his introduction, he gives the background of how each story was conceived. A story should stand by itself — and these stories do — without the props.

My favorite in this collection is “Insurrecto.” Every Filipino should read it because it is history made alive only because Joel is brilliant; he is also committed to the truth.

I hope that he can yet steal more time from a very exacting job to do a novel.

This old editor’s only advice to Joel: beware of adjectives.

Ukay-Ukay Stories and essays by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Anvil Publilshing, 177pp

Menchu Sarmiento writes with such elegance, precision and wit — it is a pity that she has not yet channeled this felicitous talent into a project more demanding than short fiction — a novel. But I know I will not be disappointed because she is working on one right now. In the meantime, this precious collection of short fiction. In this work, she displays that brilliant reach which makes her such a pleasure to read. The first story is a take-off on that famous Ilokano from Binalonan, Pangasinan, Carlos or Allos Bulosan. It is a delicious morsel, with just about enough spicy humor and élan to make the reader want to read the real Bulosan.

Personally, I think Menchu has written a much better read than any of those stories in that Bulosan collection, The Laughter of my Father. It is, after all, his “America is in the Heart” which redeems him. Menchu has mastered the portrayal of character; she illustrates this enviable talent in the longer story, “Marita Pangan.” I am not going to reveal the plot in this blurb — I will leave that unalloyed joy of discovery to the reader. With such deft strokes, her characters are drawn so vividly, their lives imagined so well, it would seem they leap out of the page to confront and convince us that they are, indeed, real. And then, when we think we know how they will act out their fates, they do something unusual yet plausible, thus leaving us not so much in confusion but in wonder. Such is the skill of Menchu Sarmiento, the writer; she brings to our literature a vividness and freshness fructified from profound thinking then translated into sparkling and most readable prose.

Tomas, the Journal of the UST Creative Writing Center

Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies

Edited by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo

The University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest university, finally has a literary journal that is worth keeping for it contains quality writing. The University should be able to maintain it because its standards are high — it could even be higher — in keeping with the university’s literary tradition.

I hope it will not perish like Silliman’s Sand and Coral and the University of the Philippines’ Diliman, Review.

This latest issue includes the young generation as well as established names like Bien Lumbera. Among the best of the young are Francesca Kwe, Ferdinand Lopez and the poet Ralph Galan.

Tomas should not limit itself to writers from Santo Tomas; it should be Catholic enough to include even non-Filipino writers who have shown professional interest in the Philippines, oldies, like Leonard Casper. I think it will also be better if the Tagalog section were separate from the English. Creative non-fiction should simply be labeled as essays. There is no such thing as creative non-fiction.

To be a reputable literary journal it must have commentaries on Filipino writers, unravel their ideologies, divulge their motives and most important, dredge their shortcomings. This will help Philippine writers in general attain more depth for our fiction is often mere storytelling.








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