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

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Friday, August 19, 2005

entry arrow4:12 PM | A Dream in Novels: Some Notes on the Reading of the Filipino Novel in English, or Ditto to Dean's Blognote

(This is a response of sorts to Dean Alfar's post about the Filipino novel in English. Because this is an effort written on a whim, this pseudo-essay is still subject to additions, deletions, and heavy editing. That I just came from the dentist and I am now in an Internet cafe should give everyone the idea that I am basically writing this off my head, and without any formal research.)

In the end, we may have to blame Rizal for the tentative nature of our responses to the Filipino novel in English (even Tagalog): how we know that it is there, but also that there is almost no one reading (at least out of their own volition) any of the "masterpieces" our handful of novelists have churned out since Zoilo M. Galang published his sappy A Child of Sorrow in 1921. (The Summit books, and Ichi Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles, which was a Palanca Grand Prize winner in 1999, are exceptions to the rule: they are novelistic freaks for the fact that they have become bestsellers in a country not particularly known for its voracious reading culture -- but we shall attempt to discuss the nuances of this later on in this pseudo-essay.)

We celebrate Galang's book only for the way it marks a milestone in the development of our literature "from" (Gemino H. Abad's term) a borrowed tongue: because, only less than a quarter of a century since English was introduced to our shores, one of us already felt confident enough in his mastery of a foreign language to attempt what is deemed a herculean effort in literature -- the writing of a novel. The Indians, colonized by the British, took even longer, so our literary pundits say. It only took us 22 years. That's an impressive record, indeed. But to dissect the literariness of A Child of Sorrow would be to encounter a novel ridden with romantic cliches, we might as well just mention it in passing (as most critics do, if you noticed).

And there's also this observation: more than fifty years since Galang's pathbreaking foray into novel-writing, the genre has yet to take deep roots in our writing culture. Dean mentions Elmer Ordonez managing to account for only a hundred titles or so; in my list, there are only about 140 novels in English written by Filipinos -- the sum of almost a hundred years of Philippine literature in that language, which is probably comparable to the average number of titles released in America in, let's say, a month. Nick Joaquin, himself the author of "only" two novels (The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Cave and Shadows), once subscribed this situation as part our "heritage of smallness," which explains the Filipino's tendency to focus on small things. And "small things" in fiction-writing being the tendency for most Filipino fictionists to produce only the short story instead of novels. (And consider our "novels"! Shouldn't most of them be considered novelettes instead?)

The literary critic Leopoldo Yabes, according to Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, was once asked to do a survey of Filipino novels in 1965, and found it a daunting task since he could only account for only two novels being produced every year on the average. But Ma'am Jing sounds optimistic in her estimation of then and now. She wrote: "Today, if someone were to construct a list of the novels in English published during the last two decades, he would come up with at least sixty titles -- roughly three novels per year. Contrary to the gloomy predictions of the militant student-led movements of the late sixties, Philippine fiction in English has not merely survived; it appears to have thrived."

The first thing we might have to ask ourselves is this: why are we not producing novels in a respectable quantity? (Of course, if you consider "quantity" an important consideration.) Miguel Bernad's much-contested assessment of the "inchoateness" of our literature may indeed still ring true. "Primum est vivere," he had declared in that essay. One must first live. And accordingly, nobody is really able to live on his own writings in the Philippines. This is a country of parttime writers, if we have to be blunt about it: we all produce our stories and poems and plays basically on borrowed time since we are primarily teachers, journalists, copywriters, businessmen, lawyers, priests, and what-not. It is easy enough to understand or imagine the hardship entailed in trying to maintain the sustained effort required in writing a novel without the thought of where to get one's next meal intruding into our consciousness once in a while. Often, it is possible only to write novels in a sustained timeframe when one is mad enough to dive into the deep end without any hesitating preambles (which Dean probably did in the writing of Salamanca). For the most part, novelists who are teachers wait for their sabbaticals to be able to venture forth and finally write that novel; others depend on grants and fellowships to be able to get away from the grind of reality and escape into novel-writing. That is why we apply every year for the NCCA Writers Grant, whose reward of a small fortune enables the novelist wannabe to finally become financially stable and devote fulltime to his or her writing. And that is also why a significant number of our available novels are basically outputs of contests -- the Palanca perhaps, or the million-peso jackpot of the Centennial Literary Prize back in 1998. Since it seems to be a common understanding that nobody gets rich in the writing of a novel the way Stephen King or Danielle Steele get rich, it is only understandable that some write to win a prize for their efforts. Of course that is not the only reason why Filipino novelists write their novels: there is, in fact, always that aching need to write that novel inside each of us. There is that dream to produce what could be deemed The Great Filipino Novel. There are precious aesthetic considerations involved as well. But the contest prizes -- and the honors (and envy?) that come with them -- are the unsaid rewards much coveted by many, however covertly.

We have already been writing novels even before Galang. Pedro Paterno antedated Rizal with the publication of Ninay, a Tagalog novel about a woman who dies of heartbreak, in 1885, a full two years before Noli Me Tangere was published in Spanish in 1887. A slight, overly melodramatic novel in some ways, it has since then been interpreted as a subtle rebuke of Spanish abuses during the waning years of the Spanish colonial empire. But it is really Rizal's twin tomes (Noli and El Filibusterismo) that have shaped our literature like no other literary texts have. A hundred years later, taking note of the points Rofel Brion made in his essay about the aesthetic of the Filipino novel in English, we are virtually still lying under Rizal's shadow. In everything, including the aesthetics of novel-writing. On one hand, one can argue that there's nothing as glorious as being under the influence of the Great Malay; on the other hand, the influence of the Rizal novels in the foundation of a distinct Filipino tradition in novel-writing may also be a double-edged sword. Sir Bien (Lumbera) has noted that the Filipino novel -- both in Tagalog and English -- are basically the spawn of two often overlapping influence: the fantastic vein of Balagtas and the social realist vein of Rizal. The novels of Stevan Javellana (Without Seeing the Dawn), Edilberto Tiempo (A Watch in the Night), Maximo Kalaw (The Filipino Rebel), Carlos Bulosan (America is in the Heart), Juan Laya (His Native Soil), Francisco Lazaro (Maganda Pa ang Daigdig), and Amado Hernandez (Luha ng Buwaya), among others, display a predominant social realism (with touches of the fantastic in some of them).

According to Sir Bien, social realism is our truest heritage in the novel, and in fact argues that this must be maintained. In his study, Brion in fact notes that the most predominant theme in the novel in English is the characteristic of didacticism, and not really of the moral sort all of the time (say, the quaint religiosity and amusingly repressive etiquette of Modesto de Castro's Urbana at Felisa). Rather, what is significant is didacticism of the nationalistic sort.

Brion goes on to explain this didactic tendency as a result of many factors. I will try to explain three of these. Our literature, Brion says, is closely entertwined with our country's history; thus, our novels tend to be didactic if only because they comment, in varied ways, on the state of the nation as seen through the lives of the otherwise ordinary characters. Our history, one must have to admit, transcends even the abilities of fiction in its truthful narrative of strange things. Take note, for instance, how Eric Gamalinda opens Empire of Memory with the account of the Beatles being ran out of Manila by a crazed mob. Only in the Philippines! we say. In fact, the Martial Law period figures in many Filipino novels because it was just the strangest time -- both violent and surreal all at the same time. Sometimes, the didacticism of this sort -- especially in novels specializing in Martial Law storylines -- works, as in Butch Dalisay's harrowing Killing Time in a Warm Place. Also in Arlene Chai's Eating Fire, Drinking Water, where the madness of the Marcos years is easily translated into workable, and admirable, magic realism. (Strange oracles! Scheming nuns! Lost orphans! Magic earthquakes! A magnificent cathedral that would rise and fall in a single day! White horses in the sky!)

Sometimes, the didacticism falls flat, as in Azucena Grajo Uranza's arguably admirable effort at a historical tetralogy. I remember reading Bamboo in the Wind some time ago, and it felt like reading a textbook dramatized into stilted dialogue and scenes. Like Dean, I didn't finish quite finish the book -- although not because I am easily turned off by social realism, but because I just didn't want a book to obviously preach to me, which is literary didacticism at its worst.

Of this, perhaps we must echo Joseph Galdon's complaint: "Literary criticism has often demanded that the Philippine novel in English be proletarian, or nationalistic, or something else. The novel has not been allowed to be what must essentially and primarily be -- a story."

Brion also notes that one more factor in the unescapable didacticism (and its consequent social realism) of the Filipino novel in English seems to lie in the fact that these novels are mostly prize-winners. For the Centennial Literary Prize, there is obviously no escaping the tendency to romance the history and the state of the nation: thus, you have Charlson Ong's An Embarassment of Riches, Gamalinda's My Sad Republic, and Krip Yuson's Voyeurs and Savages. (R. Kwan Laurel has an interesting analysis of the three novels in his article "A Hundred Years after the Noli: The Three Centennial Novels in English.")

And what of the Palanca winners? Take note of this criteria and ponder on the implications, Brion said: "In the Novel category, the theme is open and free. However, it should depict the Filipino way of life, culture or aspiration..." Arguably, that is a recipe for a didactic novel, but I believe, however, that there seems to be a relaxation of this consideration in the Palanca Grand Prize Winner for the Novel, after Uranza's win for Bamboo in the Wind -- never mind Sir Frankie Sionil's insistence, just like Salvador Lopez before him, that "Art does not develop in a vacuum; the artist is first responsible not just to his art but to society as well."

In 1999, Ichi won for a novel (Smaller and Smaller Circles) that was acclaimed for finally bridging the gap -- at least in the Philippines -- between what is considered "literary" and what is considered "popular". It was, after all, a well-written detective novel -- although I must admit that I was a bit let down by what seemed to be a hurried, much-too-easy denouement: note the all-too-quick catching of the serial killer, which is a no-no in our more sophisticated age where we expect our detective novels to have more red herrings for leads, to have more twists before the final curtain must fall. (I've always wanted to email Ichi about this, but couldn't.) Three years later, one can argue that Vince Groyon's wonderful The Sky Over Dimas is a return to the nationalistic didactic form, but no: it is a pungent tale of the mores and deadly secrets of Bacolod high society, which has a more fantastic outlook than being serious social commentary. It definitely led the way to Dean winning this year for Salamanca, a novel written in one month; I've read one chapter of this novel, "Gaudencio & Jacinta," and I've already blogged previously about how I felt this work finally fleshens out -- in glorious full bloom -- the possibilities of Filipino magic realism, without looking like pale imitations of the Latin American kind. Is the novel less Filipino because it is not overtly a work of social realism? I don't think so. I can even make the claim that it is harkening back to the magical narrative of our forgotten pre-colonial myths, legends, and epics. In a sense, Salamanca is a return to our deepest roots the way the novels of Hernandez and his ilk can never claim to accomplish: their mark of social realism -- at least for the current generation of readers and writers generally distrustful of leftist-leanings -- smacks of "foreign conceit" and "defunct" ideologies: Marxism, revolution, the class war between the burgis and the proletariat masa, which, although rooted in real social underpinnings that are only too true in their reports of social injustices, ultimately pale in the knowledge of socialism's failure in Russia, in Eastern Europe, in North Korea, in Cuba. ("Look at China and Vietnam today," this generation would probably say, if they would even give a damn to express a political opinion, "aren't these capitalist states riding on a veneer of communism?") In this age, after all, Che Guevarra is no longer the communist freedom fighter he once was: he is an icon consumed by capitalism, whose visage is printed on mugs and t-shirts and other merchandise. Heck, he is even a movie starring a Hispanic heartthrob (The Motorcycle Diaries).

But I started with Rizal. And why we should blame him for "alienating" readers from the Filipino novel. This is only a retread of Galdon's old complaint (see above). Brion noted that most Filipino writers/novelists tend to be didactic because subconciously they try to emulate the narrative paragon Rizal set in the Noli and Fili. And there is just no escaping Rizal when one is a typical Filipino. The first folk tales we hear of as children are stories spun, or adapted magnificently, by Rizal: "Mariang Makiling" and "The Monkey and the Turtle." We can even add "The Moth and the Flame" to those two classics. And our first kasabihan? Of course: "Ang di marunong magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa sa malansang isda." When we went on to high school, we were first introduced to his novels. In college, CHED mandated that we should all enroll in one course that would cover Rizal's life and works. We cannot escape from Rizal. He is there when we fish for change and take out a peso coin. He is there when we light our posporo. He is there when we go to our plazas, where he stands as a monument clad in trademark coat and books, standing still as a statue. In Dumaguete, Rizal gives the name to our popular seaside Boulevard. The first two movies made in the Philippines were about Rizal. And the last noted blockbuster of note, was Marilou Diaz Abaya's Rizal. Rizal is in our subconscious. No wonder, Brion said, we write our novels as pale imitations of his works.

But I believe that the Rizalian hold on our novelistic aesthetics may be thawing. It's been a hundred years since the Noli, and it's about time, anyway. Perhaps the ready examples of this paradigm shift is the unacknowledged (at least among the "snobbish" literati) popularity of the Summit books under the editorship of Tara FT Sering. Published under the auspices of Cosmopolitan Magazine Philippines, the novels are unabashedly of the romantic sort. Chick lit, so to speak. The mention of that term easily raises the hackles of the literary purists among Filipino writerly circles. But dammit, these books are actually interesting and intelligent; they are immensely readable; and they are -- horrors! -- quite literary. Consider the novelists in the series: Sering herself, Abi Aquino, Andrea Pasion, Mabi David, Tweet Sering, Melissa Salva, and others. Many of them are award-winning writers, and some have anthologized works in several literary books. But in their novels -- which are unqualified bestsellers, and I hear quite remarkable for the royalty they provide their authors, which is totally unheard of in the maintstream publishing climes of the country -- they write of love won and love lost, the gender wars, and others of that vein. Fluff? Perhaps. But hey, literary fluff.

I'd like to think of these novels -- along with the works by Ichi, Dean, and Vince -- as the best indicators of the bright future ahead for the Philippine novel in English. Sir Krip (Yuson) recently wrote that the future of Philippine fiction lies in the hands of Filipino-American novelists like Bino Realuyo (The Umbrella Country), Jessica Hagedorn (Dream Jungle and Dogeaters), Ninotchka Rosca (State of War), Brian Ascalon Roley (American Son), Noel Alumit (Letters to Montgomery Clift), Han Ong (The Disinherited and Fixer Chao), M. Evelina Galang (What is a Tribe), Tess Uriza Holthe (When the Elephants Dance), and Sabina Murray (A Carnivore's Inquiry).

Perhaps, but not entirely so.

There are budding novelists among us, in our ranks, in our side of shores. They will, I am sure, surprise us. Timothy Montes has a novel, Running Amok, on the way. Bing Sitoy, too, I heard. Maryanne Moll, who just won third prize in the Palanca short story category this year, has one, still unpublished. Baryon Tensor Posadas is working on one that will probaly rival Haruki Murakami's. Kit Kwe is working on a historical epic, and there countless others who are toiling, too, to produce worthwhile works. I can only wish them a prayer for the sustenance of their incredible efforts. Because imagine what a great future that will be, all these novels coming out one by one. We can then certainly say we have finally come of age, novel-wise.

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