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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

entry arrow7:08 PM | To Compensate For the Blogging Downtime Because I Have Deadly Deadlines to Beat and a Conference in Cebu to Prepare For...

... I am posting this essay I once wrote for Graduate School, tackling the theme of Filipino identity and nationalism in the teaching of Philippine literature. It's very long, so that should occupy all the recent dead space. I'm not sure I still agree with all the things I said here, but hey, someone once said that only morons believe in the things they believed in years ago.


In her essay "Literature, Nationalism, and the Problem of Consciousness," the writer/critic Caroline S. Hau delineated the nationalist agenda in the teaching of Philippine literature, where she also problematized the concept of nation or a nationalist consciousness within such a project. For this, we also remember that the critic Benedict Anderson defined this sense of "nation-ness" as an imagined political community -- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

Given this, I often challenge myself, as a teacher of Philippine literature in college, with this provocation: how do I provide a rationale for a reading program in Philippine literature in English for college students, considering that such a program does not only transform consciousness but also constitute to such a consciousness?

It is difficult to provide a rationale for something you do not yourself believe in. So I often, in the preparation of my syllabus, choose to sidestep that notion. I will try to explain this disbelief in some detail, and try to put in specific what can be done instead in the teaching of a course entitled Philippine Literature in English.

In Hau's article, she posits that "literature is utilized strategically in the formation of an educated, ‘model' citizen-subject who aids in the transformation of his or her society." This is true. In no other media has it proven easier to mediate a certain evolution in the way society thinks and acts than through literature and reading. I once read somewhere that the Philippines is a country invented by writers -- like Rizal and his ilk, and I would like to prove this point by reaching out beyond this talk of Philippinism and nationalism by taking in an example from queer literature. It goes without saying that the queer identity today, if improved in the way society has somehow accepted it (e.g., the success of such shows as Will and Grace on TV should alert us to that change in public mood about homosexuality), is still under fire from the conservative (and mainstream) heterosexual society.

In the groundbreaking Am I Blue?, a one-of-a-kind anthology of queer writing for gay and lesbian young adults, editor Marion Dane Bauer writes of a society that is silently falling apart from prejudice: "One out of ten teenagers attempts suicide. One out of three of those does so because of concern about being homosexual. That means that in every statistical classroom across the country there is one young person in danger of dying for lack of information and support concerning his or her sexuality...."

In literature, through the anthology, Bauer hopes to contribute to the process of erasing that prejudice and that statistic. She writes further: "A good friend of mine once said, ‘I have never met a bigot who was a reader as a child,' and it is something I believe as well. The power of fiction is that it gives us, as readers, the opportunity to move inside another human being, to look out through that person's eyes, hear with her ears, think with his thoughts, feel with her feelings. It is the only form of art which can accomplish that feat so deeply, so completely. And thus it is the perfect bridge for helping us come to know the other -- the other inside as well as outside ourselves."

The power of fiction then lies in the fact that they are blueprints of an "engineered" behavior, so to speak; its effectivity also lies in the fact that it provides easy accessibility for anyone to try on that blueprint, perhaps embody it in an aural sense -- and if it is particularly very convincing, be changed ultimately by it. Such is the power of the written word that we have forgotten that many events in world history have been jumpstarted because of it. There are, of course, at the outset, Rizal's novels. But we can immediately think of others. It is interesting for one to think of the Second World War as having essentially begun with the publication of Hitler's Mein Kamf -- and when its horror ended, it ended with the more triumphant Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. There are others: Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Mao's Little Red Book, Douglas Coupland's Generation X, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate coverage for the Washington Post, the Bible, the Koran, and so on and so forth.

Hau, however, takes this notion and gives us an account of how government has used this power to perpetuate a certain idea -- if to perpetuate itself in power. She writes: "This essay examines the role played by education in producing the 'Filipino' national subject of thought and action. It looks into the educational policies and mechanisms by which the post-colonial Philippine state linked the idea and practice of reading literature to the formation of the national subject. It seeks to contextualize the intimate relationship between literature and nationalism by examining in some detail the state efforts to institutionalize the teaching of courses on national heroes and their works. [It] ultimately aims to provide some explanations of the ways in which different and competing conceptions about nationalism in the Philippines treated the idea of granting agency to the newly independent Filipino subject as a theoretical and a practical problem. This agency, I argue, is often conceived as a specific ordering of the relationship between thought and action, and nationalist projects, policies, and practices play an important role in actively organizing such a relationship."

I do not hesitate in agreeing with the above thesis. We know that has been the case -- and unconsciously, we have chosen to imbibe it the moment we knew how to read, and the moment we started to intelligent abstractions in our head. We started, as school kids, memorizing and singing "Lupang Hinirang," and proceeded to compliment that by reciting the "Panatang Makabayan," to be even followed by reciting the preamble of our constitution. For six years, as a student in West City Elementary School, a public school, I have done this every day early in the morning. They were supposedly good for us, to make us better citizens -- and to drive home the point of that "goodness," we punctuated the whole early morning exercise by, in fact, exercising (some would say stretching) to the beat of a commonplace musical cadence, to stay fit. That is how we were conditioned in elementary school: You want to be a good person? Be a good citizen, and stay fit.

In a sense, I understand the purpose. There is a certain fragility in the identity of "Filipino." At best a constructed identity (but, then again, what is not "constructed" these days?), it suffers from a syndrome that can doom its taking root: it is a young identity, arguably only a little more than a hundred years old (or perhaps 200 or 300 -- depending on what theory of history you subscribe to), and it is unmistakably fragmented -- a somewhat careless coagulation of several island cultures which may or may not want to be placed together under the same umbrella. I remember, for example, a TV episode of "Points of View" where a guest from Southern Mindanao was asked the question "Do you consider yourself a Filipino?" His answer: "I am a Muslim."

Noting these then, the government's recourse is to force that common identity if it has to continue to wield power. You cannot, for all likelihood, hold on to power over a people who continue to deny your power, over a people who continue to deny "sameness" among themselves.

And so, beginning even in preparatory school, that fostered sense of nation and identity is heaped on the unsuspecting child. In elementary, we are told to adore Rizal and made to read his mythology (the turtle and the monkey, the moth and the candle, "Sa Aking Mga Kababata," etc.) I remember being so enamored by Rizal as a child that I kept as a treasure a green book entitled Rizal and His Times, which in this particular volume essayed his stay in Dapitan and his travel around the world. I marveled at his genius: I read about his teaching young boys under the shade of a tree (how I longed to be one of those boys! what a wonderful classroom -- so different from my stodgy one!), his constant excursions with his boys in search of flora and fauna (did he really discover another species of toad?), his construction of the bamboo water pipe (ingenious!), his medicine (affecting!), his gift of language, his travel. He seemed god-like, and with his ubiquitous cape, assumed the stance of Superman.

He was everything I wanted to be.

Nobody told me he was a short man, a miser, a womanizer, and barring that, even possibly gay. Nobody told me that the whole cult of Rizal might be a ruse by the Americans to consolidate its colonial power over the Philippines by advocating a national hero who sought, not violence and uprising, but a local kind of "Protestant ethic" and education.

That took care of much of our formative years in elementary and secondary schools. In college, we are taught to put our Rizal reverence to the test by reading -- and perhaps criticizing -- the double bibles of Noli and Fili (which we have already read in sacred manner and in length, in junior year high school -- so the "critical damage" done in college would be minimal), and examining the not-so-perfect-after-all humanity of Rizal. But we have other texts to consolidate more that sense of nationhood once espoused by Rizal -- and these texts, for the most part, belong to the rubric of "Panitikang Filipino" and "Philippine Literature."

It was a CHED-guarantee. We can cite the pertinent passages from Memorandum Order No. 59. This insured a continuity of that subtle "brainwashing," done in the name of patriotism and "love for our own."

What I can do now is to reiterate my disbelief in the identity of Filipino in a world where the Great Filipino dream, according to Jessica Zafra, is "to be an American." The label "Filipino" inherently sounds false. In the one hundred years of trying to cultivate this peculiar nativity, it has yet to really take its root (we even argue which label to use: "Am I a Filipino or a Pilipino?") -- and by virtue of that difficulty, I do not choose to participate in clinging to a tree that can, without warning, topple over. If identity is in limbo, then I am Citizen Limbo. That is more honest. I am, as it happens, just a person who lives in a place collectively called "The Philippines," and for the sake of taxes and paperwork, resignedly appropriate a citizenship called "Filipino." Can I afford to do this? Of course I can: it is a post-postmodern world, after all where absolutes, like identity and sexuality, have been done away. In the recent New York Times Magazine issue, this state of being is called "Fluid" -- where nobody's American or Filipino, black or white, gay or straight.

As a teacher of English literature then, what am I to do?

I start with the reiteration in the disbelief in the concept of "Filipino," despite having to teach a subject called Philippine Literature. I argue that deeper consideration of the words "Philippine" or "Filipino" in the course title bankrupts the goal of being first and foremost, a reader. My sense is this: not to delineate a specificity of Filipino literature in English, but only to highlight a certain marginalized aspect of the greater world literature, to push the unnavigated -- maybe shallow? (I mean "shallow" in the geographical sense, and not in the context of significance and depth) -- parts of a big river. The big river contains dominant species of fish named Shakespeare and Milton and Austen, etc. In the same river, we will try to sample other fish named Joaquin and Tiempo and Bautista. (But, you can say, there are tributaries, or even other rivers: I say the tributaries contain the same water, and often the same fish... and the other river? What other river? There is no other river.)

Again: Philippine Literature as a course is just an invitation to focus on a literature that I will call "from around here." It will not be a practice in instituting absolutes.

The problem with bracketing literatures into independent (as opposed to interpenetrating) essentialisms -- Filipino literature, American literature, gay literature, feminist literature, post-colonial literature -- creates an antagonism of sorts, a Them vs. Us. (Maybe that is why many of us in the world are unhappy, because we always have enemies, unreunitable opposites.) This bracketing might be solved by mere "highlighting," to say that a strain of this or that can be found. But isn't this "highlighting" a bracketing itself? Not really.

Why do our writers write with a didactic sense of nationalism anyway? Rofel Brion, in his "English Lessons: Towards the Aesthetics of the Contemporary Novel in English" speculates on three reasons why our novels are didactic in a nationalistic way. For one, Brion says that Filipino writers cannot help it but virtue of tradition and education. He writes: "One reason may be that Filipino writers cannot but face the didactic tradition in Philippine literature, both in the vernacular and in English. Balagtas and Rizal have been required readings for almost all Philippine schools, colleges and universities for decades. Florante at Laura, Noli Me Tangere, and El Filibusterismo have been translated to English, turned into films and comic books, and considered as models by scores of other writers, including Filipino novelists in English. It is virtually impossible for any educated Filipino ... not to know Balagtas and Rizal, and the nationalism they preach. It should not be surprising then if writers see themselves as instructors of being Filipino."

He also cites NVM Gonzales's call for our literature to have a sense of "social preoccupation," and reiterates that by echoing F. Sionil Jose who once wrote that "Art does not develop in a vacuum; the first artist is responsible not just to his art but to society as well."

Second, Brion "blames" the rules for the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature which specify that, "In the Novel category, the theme is open and free. However, it should depict the Filipino way of life, culture or aspiration...." Azucena Grajo Uranza's Bamboo in the Wind, for example, is a Palanca first prize winner, and Eric Gamalinda's My Sad Republic also won first prize in the Philippine Centennial Literary Contest -- which, obviously, had to tackle the theme of nation as befits any centenary celebration.

Finally, Brion probes even deeper -- and looks at reasons of relevance and readership: "I greatly suspect, though, that Filipino novelists in English very often write about Philippine society and being Filipino, even to the point of preaching about these concerns, on order to be more relevant to the rest of the nation. Their novels, after all, are written in a language not very many Filipinos read as literature. It is common knowledge that the best selling literary works among Filipinos, here and abroad, are written in Filipino -- feature films, short stories, songs, comic books, radio, and television."

For the most, our writers here have been writing without appropriate distance from history -- often they embody it (many were themselves victims of Marcos' martial rule -- and so they write with that enduring theme). What often results is polemic writing.

What do I do specifically as an English teacher teaching Philippine literature then? For the most part I have resorted to the teaching of the course in terms of form: short fiction as found in the Philippines, the novel as found in the Philippines, poetry as found in the Philippines.... It gives me great pleasure to point out the masterful opposition of styles of local masters, as between the "Ginanni Versace bombast" of Nick Joaquin versus the "Calvin Klein minimalism" of Francisco Arcellana. Issues are almost always secondary -- although it does spring so many often in the discussions to facilitate better understanding of the art form: and when they do in my classroom, they do not focus on the definitions of Filipino-ness (because when we do, the discussion suddenly loses focus). They focus, instead, on locating the person(s) in the story in conditions other than his national identity: his sexuality, for instance, or her femininity. In other words, the individual over the collective. The individual is a sure entity by just "being"; the collective, on the other hand, is still being "manufactured." Often, there is no time for us to indulge in that "manufacture."

Are the students aware of "Filipino-ness"? I think they do, and invariably they already know it is not a kind of "definiteness." I think what I do in class is subvert the mandated sense of transforming and constituting a Filipino consciousness through literature, by transforming and constituting another consciousness for my students that there is such a thing as transforming and constituting consciousness. (Whoa.) And that I do not believe in subjecting them further in blatant Filipinism. They can take it or leave it.

What to do with the CHED memorandum? Discard it. It is a just a "suggestion," anyway. What the CHED memorandum accomplishes for the most part, in fact, is to do a careless boundary marking -- a kind of regional literary tourism that mistakes itself for a deep reconsideration for the marginal in the regions.

What I protest about the memorandum are two things: That it has the audacity to create a geopolitics of literature just for the sake of "even and equal" classification and consideration. This leads to old criticisms of regionalism. The arbitrariness can be dangerous. "In this unit, we study literatures from Region Blah-Blah, and representing that region is Writer A and Writer B." It is a patronizing exercise that follows the regionalism concept of a Miss Universe beauty pageant.

It has the audacity to suggest, unconsciously, a certain homogenization of regional conditions (because it will, as the normal procedure of the thing goes): "This is Region VI, this is Region VII..." when, for the most part, a Boholano is vastly different from an Oriental Negrense -- and even a particular Oriental Negrense is different from another Oriental Negrense (My writing is vastly different for example from Bobby Villasis -- but "regionalizing" us together invites an assumption to find a "common aesthetics," like what Brion and countless critics have done to "Filipino literature." I despise being put in a box.)

It also opens the door for mediocrity. What if no writing from a specific region can pass for literature? Do we then force ourselves to consider substandard writing in the name of representation? I am talking in the extreme, of course.

I think what I'm really trying to say, in the long run, is that locating literature in issues is actually important -- all except the issue of nation. It is pedagogic, but most of all, it is futile -- because attempts to define cannot succeed because forced. All one can hope for is "to be."


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