Bienvenido Lumbera: The writer as public intellectual

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist, died last week. At a recent convocation in Diliman where he was present, I said of all the Filipino writers I know, it is him I envy the most. Much earlier, I told him this. Bien had courage. He walked the talk, for which reason he was imprisoned by Marcos. He was a true scholar who did research on our cultural past. Bien also received Asia’s most prestigious prize – the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Award.

Bien was orphaned in childhood, and he grew up under the wing of relatives. His credentials are impressive. He went to Santo Tomas for his Bachelor’s degree, and he received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in the University of Indiana. He taught creative writing at UP, UST, La Salle and Ateneo and lectured on Philippine culture at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies.

Bien was truly bilingual. I am no judge of his Tagalog work; even his speech tended to be archaic – I grew up in Manila, my Tagalog is the lingua of the sidewalk. Once I told him – I could hardly understand his Batangueño, while I understood Jun Cruz Reyes’s Manila idiom. His essays in English, however, are paragons of clarity and eloquence.

The only time I disagreed with Bien was when he wrote the libretto of the CCP mega production, Rama Hari, based on the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. I told him that should have been by the Indians. There are so many Philippine materials that our artists could recreate.

Bien also organized the critics of our movies, presented awards for excellence. At one time, he also chaired the Philippine Center of International P.E.N. and was awarded the Southeast Asian Write Award in Bangkok.

Bien belonged to that group of writers not circumvented by creative or imaginary writing called public intellectuals.

My sympathies go to his wife Cynthia and their children. They’ve lost someone very precious to them and the country.

I’ve lost a dear friend.

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The novelist or creative writer who turns to journalism is well-equipped to do so. Creative writing requires intense observation, not just of visible, tactile phenomena but of character – recondite and manifested by action. A creative writer tries to answer all the whys that result in action and the formation of character. It is for this reason why the journalism of Nick Joaquin was penetrating and insightful; his “A Question of Heroes,” for instance, is historiography of the highest order. He traced the decisions, the direction taken by our men of destiny to their innate character. It is therefore possible to foretell how a man – or a leader – may act or react to the challenges he faces. In that debate whether Rizal retracted his belief in masonry or not, his splendid biographer, Austin Coates, declared that all those testimonies and documents made by the Jesuits were lies or forgeries because they did not conform with Rizal’s character. This dictum is always in my mind as I shape the character in my fiction – their consistency, their normality. I don’t make them physically crippled or grotesque – this is the easiest way for them to be attractive and unique. I don’t deny them contradictions, but these contractions must be justified.

Writers staging from literature to our nationalism – the essay, to clarify or to intensify their thinking – is very much in the Western tradition since the first historians like Herodotus also wrote travel essays. In modern European literature, they were moralists; this is particularly emphasized in the writings of Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo and, in more recent times, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They were “engagée” – engaged. As such, their work had more depth and impact. As the conscience of a nation, they influenced French society, and earlier in French history ignited the French Revolution. Turning to our own history, one writer stands out as an engagée, Jose Rizal.

In our time, this tradition – meaning Rizal’s influence – holds but not as tenaciously as I had hoped. Our foremost writers in English other than Nick Joaquin and Carlos Bulosan, Ben Santos, the Tiempos of Dumaguete, NVM Gonzales, were not all that engaged. Their writing was almost always limited to the literary genre – NVM who wrote closely of the land had little to say about society outside of his fiction. Ditto with Manuel Arguilla, who was the most proletarian of them.

On the other hand, Gilda Cordero Fernando and Kerima Polotan were able to stray from creative writing and wrote trenchant social commentary. And among the living, notable are Greg Brillantes, Elmer Ordoñez, Butch Dalisay and Krip Yuson.

We need more today to bond our people to the truth and the past. To veer away from creative writing does not, by any means, veer away from the truth. All too often, reality as depicted in a short story or a novel seems more “truthful.” As the saying goes, journalism is history in a hurry. Literature is history that is lived. The conditions in England during the Industrial Revolution are best appreciated by reading the novels of Charles Dickens. And Rizal’s novels give us a vivid picture of what it was like in the Philippines in the twilight of the Spanish regime.

As prophets, the many realities today in technological and scientific achievement were foretold in the science fiction a hundred years ago; will the science fiction now be realities a century from today? Again, the truths now must be recorded with fidelity.

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Homosexuality is as old as mankind; it was common in ancient Greece. It has, however, been considered abnormal in many societies but in recent years, it has come to be accepted. This development was preceded by the emergence of gay literature in the West to be regarded as a genre and as such, to merit serious critical attention. We have had quite a few of them, some very excellent like Morli Dharam, Nick Joaquin and, yes, Jose Garcia Villa.

My favorite gay writer is Danton Remoto. Sometime back when I said gays should not flaunt their condition, he called me an “old fart.” I found that amusing. Actually, almost all writers flaunt their identity – Catholic, Marxist, Ilokano, etc. Danton is moved by his cause, and he even organized a political party to defend it and ran for public office. He is also a teacher of creative writing and has tutored writers here and abroad. His novel, Riverrun, is readable, exquisite in parts, and is a benchmark in our gay literature. Comparisons are odious, but he reminds me of Oscar Wilde, the English writer. He has more years ahead of him. What I’d like to see in Danton is more fire, more passion and more engagement in the manner that great gay American writer James Baldwin does it. Danton has the skill, the vocabulary to do this. Now, how to get him angry. Maybe he should start with Manny Pacquiao, whose diatribe against Danton’s tribe tops them.

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