Cultural criticism among the young writers
HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - June 8, 2008 - 12:00am

I  am very happy to note that the STAR has a new cultural commentator, Exie Abola, because Exie does not hesitate to call a spade a shovel. This candor and candidness are sorely missing in our cultural assessment. Criticism — pointed, factual, learned — that will help us appreciate what is aesthetically pleasing and, on the other hand, identify plays, sculpture, paintings, literary works that are simply abominable.

These are particularly evident in Manila today. The city has truly become anarchical, not just its traffic or garbage collection — just look at the lighting along the entire stretch of Roxas Boulevard from the airport approach to Rizal Park, and you immediately know what I mean. Not just anarchy — corruption.

Too, the sprouting of so many monuments, some of people we don’t even know, who have achieved nothing worth honoring or emulating.

There are monuments in Manila that I would like to dynamite: the Castrillo EDSA monument is first — all those pygmies, the absence of imagination to commemorate such an important event. And that EDSA statue of the Virgin done by Virginia Ty Navarro — it is so lacking in solemn grace that evokes piety. And my friend Billy Abueva’s Peace monument near Malacañang; I told him a long time ago to change it — it is like some fat hen impaled on a short pole. And the funniest of them all, for that is what it does, evoke laughter, not a sense of heroic nobility — the statue of Gabriela Silang in Makati — the rider is the same size as her horse!

Compare these aesthetic anomalies with the social realist statues that Sukarno studded Jakarta with; at the very least, they have power, visual impact. If all monuments intended for public spaces were subjected to a competition supervised by competent judges, if certain well-formulated standards in street naming or lighting were followed, then these politicians with hardly any sense of style and decorum would not be allowed to assault public sensibilities.

There is more that can be panned, this time on the stage — which, incidentally, is the most vibrant of our cultural endeavors. We have, after all, a stage tradition, and we have directors like Chris Millado who is perhaps our finest, and excellent actors like Fernando Josef and powerful playwrights like Rody Vera.

This paean to them is self-serving because all three brought to life three of my novels for the stage — but I have seen plays directed by others and they are simply disgusting — the recent stage version of Himala, just to name one.

I report this now with some sadness because Chris directed it, and Rody Vera, who is also an excellent singer and actor, played the lead. I saw one of the last performances of Ed Maranan’s rock musical based on the lives of Evelio Javier and Edjop. The musical, for all its wonderful staging, was dismal and, as I told Rody, his singing and acting were wasted. The script (and this by a brilliant writer) lacked the tension that could have carried it forward; it was boring because all of us know the story of Edjop and Evelio Javier. And the music was not any better — I have heard livelier Filipino rock.

And now for our writers. Particularly the young.

Again, Those Pesky Workshops

I would advise them not to take those workshops too seriously. They have proliferated and are very popular; for many a young writer, to be invited to one is to be recognized, a kind of status symbol — it is all very flattering and it increases one’s sense of self-worth.

But writing is still a singular and personal effort — and writers are not made in workshops although a good teacher can, indeed, point out some pitfalls to avoid, some shortcuts to finer writing, and most of all, increase the young writers’ sense of professionalism and craftsmanship. After all, writing is a craft that can only be achieved by great attention to detail, hard work and more hard work.

But workshops often result in sameness, a dreary dullness because the attention is focused so much on craft when there is more to craft than craft itself.

In the United States, for instance, many critics are now blaming the workshops for the prevalence of bad poetry, the absence of poetic vision and language in the slew of poems that are churned out by workshops.

What, then, is their value? Certainly, they are worthwhile but not so much in the creation of literature and tradition. First, they provide employment to the writers who teach in them. Writers in this country are poorly paid and any additional income is welcome.

Workshops create a venue for writers to meet, for the older writers to interact with the new generation, for the young ones to know each other and hopefully, in knowing one another, they form not just coteries but bonded communities to share a common purpose, and perhaps a vision for this country. Writers, after all, help form the foundation, a nation’s identity.

Heed the caveats. Manuel Arguilla never went to a workshop, and before him, neither did Paz Marquez Benitez or Paz Latorena; and of course Nick Joaquin who predated Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And don’t imitate popular models, or get swayed by fashionable trends. I should not complain too much. In my youth, after World War II when I had an overdose of William Faulkner, I tried to imitate that American master, till one of my teachers the Dominican Juan Labrador told me to be true to myself.

Surreal Realities

Besides, there are so many materials for the creative writer in this country. That finest of English fictionists, James Hamilton Paterson, has asked why the Philippines is terra incognita to so many western writers when this place is literally exploding with material, some of which he himself has used in his fiction and even nonfiction (in his classic “Playing with Water”).

For all the valid criticisms about our literature in English, we need not worry about its future. The materials are here, some of them surreal, even bizarre. In the Philippines, fiction cannot catch up with reality.

But the artists must be rooted on native soil, their eyes focused inward, to the mud at their feet if need be so that they can mine this rich lode that abounds in every village, in every island.

I read what the young are producing; it is very sad that there are so few magazines putting out creative effort. Thank God the Graphic under Inday Varona, the Free Press with Serge Lacuesta and the Manila Times with Elmer Ordonez are putting out short stories and poetry. The occasional journals, some from the universities and the provinces could do more, and thank God again, publishers like Karina Bolasco of Anvil are on the prowl for new authors and that old institution, the Palanca Awards, perseveres to this very day. And then, there is the NCCA with Cecil Alvarez.

We should nurture the very young — Carla Pacis, Francesca Kwe, Dennis Aguinaldo, Maria Fres Felix, Paolo Manalo, Eric Melendres, Vince Groyon, to name just a few. And where is that maverick Clinton Palanca? He should resurface and brighten the literary firmament.

But we have to have replacements for the authentic voices of Sinai Hamada who wrote of the Cordilleras, Ibrahim Jubaira who wrote of our Moro brothers. I hope young ones from these regions are coming up. And Charlson Ong is there as the brightest light that has come out of our Chinese community. May there be more like him.

The Other Questions They Ask

Every so often, I am visited by the young, sometimes even high school students who have been assigned by their teachers to do interviews. Some are students of literature or of writing who want to learn a few tricks from the old timers.

The other day, I had seven visitors from UP Manila, six of them nursing sophomores and one in liberal arts. I will now recount their questions, which I have dealt with at some length in this column.

“Where are we heading?” A very broad question that needs much thinking and precision. The question also revealed that they were, indeed, concerned with the future. I had asked earlier where they came from. All were from the provinces and one, Liesel Lee, came from San Quentin in Pangasinan, so I deduced that she was Ilokana.

I had talked at length explaining why we are poor, that if they are to bring out of our meeting one perception of what we are, it is this: we are poor because our leaders do not have confidence in us; they are not Filipinos, and have no sense of nation. Thus, they see no obligation to this country, to develop it.

It is for this reason that they salt away their profits abroad — the Chinese Filipinos, the Spanish mestizos, and the Indios like Marcos. This is basic; you don’t have to go to Harvard or to the Asian Institute of Management to know that development starts with capital formation. How is this capital formed? From profits, from savings, either by the state or by business. There is far more money leaving this country than what is staying behind or coming in. This explains not just our poverty but why they, too, in the near future will have to leave.

And so back to the question: “Where are we headed?”

Where else but to perdition. And they should leave, because it is imperative.

“Is the country hopeless, then?” one asked.

I said, of course not. If it were I would have migrated long ago.

It is not hopeless because there are young people like them who will yet provide the solutions.

One final question: “What is my advice to the young?”

What could I tell them? What my own generation did not heed? My generation failed; it made all this mess and I am, myself, culpable. Looking back, I should have shouted more loudly, longer, too, even perhaps to the point of getting hoarse. For that is what Bertolt Brecht said — “Shouting about injustice hoarsens the voice” — and the artist whose voice is hoarse will not be understood, will not even be listened to.

I told them: “Be Filipino.”

This means so much, and in the end, could mean so little for everyone can claim he is a nationalist. And when everyone claims he is, then being Filipino loses its intrinsic meaning. It becomes something else, not the heroic and sacrificing people that I had hoped we could be, but, perhaps, will yet be.


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