Our literary heritage

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Last fortnight, our thoughtful Ambassador to Beijing, Mr. Chito Sta. Romana, asked me and the poet, Luisa Igloria, to speak at a seminar on our literary legacy. I thank him for this. This is what I said:

Neither Buddhism nor Hinduism, Asia’s two great religions, had converted the Filipinos. These two religions shaped the classical cultures of Asia that are absent in the Philippines.

When Spanish colonization started 500 years ago, this country, composed of so many tribes fighting one another, already had written alphabets, weaving, metalcraft and shipbuilding, but the literature was folk, the ethnic epics sans the sophistication and profundity of the classical epics of Asia. Some still exist today, chanted by tribal elders, and slowly fading among them, the hud-hud of Ifugao and the Darangen in Lanao, translated into English by Sister Delia Coronel. Being mostly Christians, we belong to the Western tradition; this is the core of Filipino identity.

In the 300 years of Spanish domination, the native literatures did not flourish. There is hardly any recorded. This void needs scholarly examination. There is one long Tagalog poem, Florante at Laura, that was written in the latter part of Spanish rule, and it has survived and is regarded as a milestone of Tagalog literature. In Spanish, however, Rizal’s novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, may be regarded as the brightest legacy from the Spanish period. His Mi Ultimo Adios – My Last Farewell, written on the eve of his execution, is translated in so many languages and is an inspiration to the nationalist revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Let it be known that no country has produced a paragon like him. Rizal spoke a dozen languages. He was a medical doctor, a poet, a sculptor, an anthropologist and a novelist.

If the Spaniards did not teach Spanish to the Filipinos, the Americans who occupied the Philippines for only 40 years propagated English as the language of instruction in the public schools which they also established. Today, English is the language of power, of government, of commerce and it is the primary vehicle of literature. By the 1930s, the first generation of Filipino writers after the culmination of the Philippine-American War in 1910 had already produced a robust collection of literature in English. The public schools made this possible.

American schoolteachers came almost simultaneously with the troops. In fact, some of the first teachers were soldiers. They traversed the country, even in the remotest mountain villages. The literary texts at the time were what was taught in American schools – the New England literary pioneers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe. By the 1940s, a vibrant Filipino English literature had bloomed.

The pervasive American influence on Philippine culture was interrupted during the Japanese Occupation and with no cultural imports, Tagalog literature flourished. Western classical plays were translated into Tagalog and staged in Manila movie theaters.

After the war, Philippine English literature was promoted further by Filipino writers who went to the United States and imbibed the tenets of the New Criticism which was then in vogue in American campuses. It was understood that a Filipino writer in English was truly recognized only when he is published in America. Today, so many Filipinos are now translated in foreign languages.

Philippine literature in English will surely flourish. Valiant efforts are being made to rescue minority languages like Pangasinan, Zambal and Kapampangan from dying. Meanwhile, Ilokano and Tagalog, with their vast readership, will survive.

Two major challenges beset our writers. The first is in whatever language the Filipino writer writes, his readership is not widespread. Filipinos do not appreciate their own literature, whether English or native. This is ironic because our national hero is a novelist. The second is deeper, and it requires honest self-searching and continuous contemplation; how they can be Filipino. To achieve this, they can mine the rich lode of folk epics and folktales, and reshape them, ennoble them. They need to adapt the rhythms and patterns of folk poetry. They can portray the salty essences of Filipino life, celebrate the land and infuse their writing with the iron truths of Philippine history, and above all, the epic heroism of their people.

At the end of her presentation, Miss Igloria read her exquisite poem exalting her nationhood.


Way back in the early 1950s, my neighbor journalists and I in Project 8 used to go duck hunting in the environs of La Mesa dam. That whole area, as with much of Quezon City then, was veneered with wild grass, the abode of rice pigeons. A creek ran through the expanse. In the dry season, the water level was quite low, and I saw this weird-looking branch or root jutting out of the water. I brought a saw and cut it. I brought the root home, scrubbed and oiled it, and it stands in our porch today, a beautiful sculpture carved by time and nature. I know that it will last another hundred years or more. Every so often, every day in fact, I look at the root and touch it, almost as a ritual, to bond me with the earth, the past and remind me of how things endure, petrified by time. I don’t know to whom it will pass when I go. Will it have the same significance for the one who will inherit it? I am sure it will keep like those wooden artifacts in Japanese museums that have lasted several centuries.


The oldest evidence of human civilization – 12,000 years old – has been unearthed in Turkey recently. The discovery has changed some academic views on civilization itself. In this site, there were samples of ancient art, figurines, carvings, inscriptions, affirming the ancient panegyric “ars longa, vita brevis.”

*      *      *

My French translator, the poet Amina Said, considers Viajero my very best novel. Here is a passage from it:

“But the word, the only word, I knew it even before I was born, heard it then, not whispered but shouted from every mouth, and even from those who were mute, they spelled it in signs so it be understood. I read it in my mother’s womb, and it gushed into me, air in my lungs compounded with sun and starlight brighter than day and truer than right. I know who spoke it first – this incandescent word in my remembered past.”

Who has noticed it? Who will remember Viajero itself? Who cares, really?

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