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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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Sunday, March 26, 2006

entry arrow8:27 AM | Lumbera, Bautista, Barrios, and Yuson's Scathing Column

I should have something to say about the current "controversy" gripping the Philippine literary community in the light of deliberations for the next Philippine National Artist for Literature -- but I blissfully don't. Not because I do not have any opinion about this, but because I just find the whole thing a little too silly. Like a comic game of sabong. But for those not in the know, the whole bonfire of things started when Krip Yuson wrote the following "attack" in his Kriptokin column last Monday in the Philippine Star. (And because Star's online archive is the very equivalent of hell, I'm going to shamelessly copy-paste everything. But do take note that I've been trying to convince Sir Krip to start blogging, and do his own archiving. So far, he's not taking the bait though.)

Nationalist Artist Awards, Anyone?

Three years ago, a day after initial deliberations were conducted for the National Artist awards eventually given out in June of 2003, UP's university professor emeritus, the distinguished poet-critic-mentor Dr. Gemino H. Abad, wrote a letter to the NCCA's then executive director Mafin Yonzon and CCP president Nes Jardin.

Dr. Abad offered his observations on the conduct of the deliberation, lamenting that not much time was given the Committee on Peers, headed by him, to review the comparative merits of the nominees for Literature.

The letter was dated March 6, 2003, a day after the first-level deliberations:

"It was only on March 4 that I knew who the nominees were -- Virgilio Almario, Cirilo F. Bautista, Jose Asia Bragado, Juan Hidalgo, Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, and Alejandro Roces; and on the day itself, during the course of our deliberations, another 'sector' (the Multi-disciplinary) was authorized to pass to our Literature 'sector' two other names, Bienvenido Lumbera and Bienvenido M. Noriega, Jr.

"The actual deliberations started about 10 a.m., so that we were to consider eight nominees within about two to two-and-a-half hours. Our anguish then was for lack of time, for so serious an Award, for so great an honor, as the title of National Artist on the sole ground of a nominee's inimitable achievement in art as a rich and distinctive contribution to our national cultural heritage. Ironically, for lesser honors (though without doubt they are also very significant) -- the Magsaysay Award, the Palanca, even the Free Press -- so much more time for the judges is expended."

He suggested giving the NCCA's research group better lead time to accomplish their task, especially with regards regional writers, and perhaps allowing the Council of Peers at least three months to conduct their review and deliberation.

Of course, Dr. Abad commented, he was all too aware of the so-called "budgetary constraints" -- which to this writer must constitute the most tricky element in the choice of National Artists every two or three years.

Particularly telling, too, as part of Dr. Abad's post-mortem -- and which I will hark back to in my own observations about the way this delicate matter is handled -- is the following:

"...The documents provided us on each nominee are very helpful indeed, but they are not sufficient for the very day itself: we need to have thought out the matter long enough, consulting with other scholars, reading or re-reading the works of the nominees, reconsidering views and opinions, etc., way before the meeting where a decision has to be made.

"Speaking only for myself -- if I had known beforehand, and were given sufficient time -- I believe I could have made a much stronger case for Cirilo F. Bautista than the write-up prepared for him in our collection of documents. I must have been chosen, I suppose, as an 'expert' on Filipino poetry in English.

"I believe of course that Virgilio Almario deserves the highest honor of National Artist; but I also feel that, in his own place in our literature in English -- which is not comparable with the course of our literature in Tagalog -- Cirilo Bautista cannot be justly displaced."

Now here's my rhetoric and my beef, born of credible rumors to the effect that several weeks ago a differently composed Council of Peers had met to deliberate over the new set of nominees, and chosen a couple of names for Literature that would then advance to the second level of deliberations (which in turn had a regrettable end result). Well, to begin with, as for that new set of nominees, it seemed more like "same-same."

As reported by the usual birdies, the front-runners were Cirilo Bautista and Bienvenido Lumbera. National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo, who joined that council deliberation, made a strong case for Bautista. It was also pointed out by some members of that seven-to-eight-man group that Bautista was the compleat creative writer. Epic poetry, short fiction in English, a novel and a book of poems in Filipino, and continuing works of criticism and journalism -- these are Cirilo's domain. For his part, Lumbera's more significant work was in the field of literary scholarship and criticism.

The Council of Peers agreed to select these two names from the nominees' list to advance to the second round, the deliberations in which would be conducted by committee officers of the NCCA. Bautista would be representative of the Literature nominees for creative writing, while Lumbera would advance on the strength of his literary criticism.

Now guess who was knocked off in that second round of deliberations, and whose name as finalist will now be presented -- and "lawyered" for -- in the third and final round of deliberations conducted by the CCP board members as well as a few NCCA reps?

Cirilo Bautista is a long-time friend of mine, and Jimmy Abad's. It is however NOT this terribly Pinoy factor that causes us much anguish over the choice of Bien Lumbera as the Literature finalist. I have much respect for Bien, and with little doubt he qualifies as a prospective National Artist for Literature. Candidly, however, I must say that I find his criticism unfairly biased for Filipino and regional writers; he has practically dismissed the works of writers in English. I suppose that's because he likes to be seen as, or is in effect seen as, a "nationalist."

By the by, not a few writers in English in UP and beyond have asked jocosely of one another, over bottles of beer: "Name me one particularly memorable work of literature Lumbera has penned." These same beer house rhetoricians also predict that it is the "extreme Left" that will be overjoyed by their champion’s ascension as National Artist. The communist candidate, it has been said rather bitchily.

Now I do not wish this to be construed as an attack on Bien Lumbera. Even as I could only smile over his backers' well-organized efforts at lobbying endorsement in the months leading up to NA deliberations, inclusive of testimonials from California Fil-Am groups and comprehensive Internet postings, I believe Bien has indeed done significant work for Filipino literature. Er, make that Philippine literature.

The least I could have bargained for, if someone cared to listen during those two rounds of deliberations, was that both Bautista and Lumbera were advanced as finalists for the ultimate reckoning. And, why, both could also be declared National Artists in Literature on the same year.

But I suppose that's where "budgetary constraints" come into the picture -- that same variable that would have a committee deciding on the inclusion of departed nominees because the cash involved in the case of posthumous awardees is significantly less.

If it were to be an absolute one-person choice however between Bautista and Lumbera, I say give the creative writer the better due, as the scholar, researcher and critic is necessarily a second-tier citizen in the republic of arts and letters.

It may be too late, however, to repair the damage done the literary persona of the eminent creative writer Cirilo Bautista, one charge against whom, I hear from my usual intelligence sources, during the NCCA second-level review was that his "reclusivity was a mark of selfishness."

My eye! My word!

It does not matter that Bautista prefers to cocoon himself in his room at home to work on his outstanding poetry and prose, rather than waste his time socializing at book launchings, or that he only occasionally indulges in a little beer with close writer-friends. He has been selfless in mentoring generations of students at De La Salle and UST and at writers’ workshops. His literary editorship of and column in Philippine Panorama magazine has for long years contributed to the molding of young poets and writers. He is the compleat writer, not merely (sorry, everyone) an epiphyte of a critic.

But that's how the ball bounces, especially when humans can only be human, subject to possible manipulation. I suppose that since my stalwart friend Virgilio Almario was anointed National Artist for Literature in 2003 (on the strength of his poetry in Filipino AND criticism, and conceivably not because scholar-critic Resil Mojares plugged for his scholarship on Filipino literature), a trend has been established, with Bien Lumbera's succession, that may keep our creative writers in English at bay where the National Artist for Literature is concerned.

I am sure that "Mom" Edith Tiempo, herself a notable critic, but whose poetry and fiction will be more of her inspiring legacy, will be saddened by this turn of events. And I can't help but imagine how Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez and Nick Joaquin -- our previous National Artists in Literature, all of them supremely creative writers in English -- may be pshaw-pshawing in their graves.

Maybe we can start calling it the Nationalist Artist awards. That should be just as good a novel term as what's been bandied about as the "DNA" or Dagdag National Artist. I hear this year Soc Rodrigo might posthumously lay claim to that sorry title. Alas and alack. A pity, for Soc was a poet.

The Wordsmith's Window happily notes that this has irritated several (mostly UP-based) creative writers in Filipino. One of them is the always radiant poetess Joi Barrios, who then wrote a letter to the Star editor:

So What's Wrong With Being a Nationalist Artist?

Like all texts, there are many ways to read Alfred Yuson's column Kripotkin published in the Philippine Star on 20 March 2006. Among them are:

1. He was merely sour-graping. He wanted Cirilo Bautista to get the National Artist award and Bautista got eliminated in the second round. I agree with Yuson. Bautista does deserve the award (I even think Gemino Abad deserves it as well!). However, to attack Lumbera because his candidate didn't win is to be pikon. As we say, pikon talo! Yuson did Bautista a disservice.

2. Mr. Yuson fears that after Almario and Lumbera, "a trend has been established...that may keep our creative writers in English at bay where the National Artist for Literature is concerned." I would like to remind Mr. Yuson that of the ten National Artists in Literature, only two (Amado V. Hernandez and Virgilio Almario) are writers in Filipino and only one is bilingual (Rolando Tinio). If anyone should be afraid of being marginalized, it should be the writers who write in the regional languages, not the writers in English.

3. Mr. Yuson is horrified that the National Artist Award could possibly go to a nationalist. I regret that at his age, Yuson still does not understand the meaning of the word "nationalism" nor the great tradition of nationalist writing espoused by both National Hero Jose Rizal and National Artist Amado V. Hernandez. One could even argue that the writings of Gonzalez, Joaquin, Tinio, and Almario are nationalist writings, because yes, even writers in English -- surprise! surprise! -- can be nationalists. If I were a mind-reader like Mr. Yuson, I could perhaps say that the writers he mentioned -- Edith Tiempo, Franz Arcellana, Gonzalez, and Joaquin -- are turning in their graves not because they are "saddened by the turn of events" but because they will be the first to deny that their patriotism can be doubted. After all, they did spend their lives " "promoting national cultural identity and the dignity of the Filipino people through the content and form of their works" -- one of the criteria for being named a national artist.

[Note: Edith Tiempo is not dead.]

4. Mr. Yuson's column should be read in the context of the political repression in the country. Five Representatives of Congress (Satur Ocampo, Liza Masa, Joel Virador, Teddy Casino and Paeng Mariano) are holed up at the Batasang Pambansa because they have arrest warrants; Representative Crispin Beltran, 73 years old, is in prison. Randy David, Risa Hontiveros, and Dinky Soliman have all been arrested for supposedly leading rallies. This past year, more than a hundred people have been summarily executed. Indeed, to be perceived to be "leftist," is dangerous in the Philippines.

Mr. Yuson has irresponsibly called Dr. Lumbera a "communist," making him an open target for the likes of Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who was decorated yesterday for his "anti-left executions." I am therefore holding Mr. Yuson responsible for whatever may happen to Dr. Lumbera.

In one of the other dailies, the headlines read: "Attacks on leftists mount." Perhaps the column was not really about Bautista. Perhaps it was not really about the "marginalized" writers in English. Perhaps Mr. Yuson was simply revealing who his patrons are.

I have yet to meet Sir Cirilo in person, but I have had great conversation with Sir Bien. I even "sparred" with him in Iligan over this piece of shitty poetry from a Davao fellow, which I proceeded to trash with gusto (yes, Iligan 2002 -- with such co-fellows as Gabby Lee, J. Dennis Teodosio, U Eliserio, Pearlsha Abubakar, and Glenn Mas -- was known as the workshop year when the fellows talked and critiqued more than the panelists...and even successfully lobbied to change the workshop schedule for all of us to be able to watch Miss Universe, hahaha), and Sir Bien proceeded to praise for its "revolutionary" symbolism. Since then, we've had great talk, in Silliman, in Manila, anywhere we happen to bump into each other.

Who deserves the National Artist title more? Should we even fight over this?

Wendell Capili also has posted reactions from Chari Lucero and some clarifications about the selection process from Piping Dilat.

[texts via decongestant]


Paolo Manalo provides great coverage (here and here) of the brewing issue. I've since texted Sir Bien. He tells me not to fret, but that he is encouraged by the response of many supporters and defenders.

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