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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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Monday, October 08, 2007

entry arrow12:43 PM | The Filipino-ness in Our Literature

Here it comes again, the old argument, this time circulating around Filipino blogs for some weeks now. Kenneth Yu keeps track of all the relevant posts, and Butch Dalisay actually wrote a column about it. (Scroll down to the "Filipino-ness in Fiction" post for October 1.) My reply is an excerpt from Rosario Cruz Lucero's Palanca-winning "The Music of Pestle-on-Mortar," which I first heard as her keynote address in the 2002 Iligan National Writers Workshop:

In my island of Negros, there is a little known savage act of ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1856. Two Spanish frayles went up a mountain in the remote region of Kabankalan for the purpose of reduccion. After these two missionaries had succeeded in pacifying the Carol-an tribe and preparing them for settlement debajo de las campanas, the governor, Don Emilio Saravia, then abused the trust of the Carol-ans by entering their territory with an army of 450 police and 60 guardias civil who were armed with rifles and two cannons. The Carol-ans, however, had learned of the governor’s treacherous plan, and so had built a fort out of trees and were ready with their weapons of spears and arrows. After a brief but fierce battle, with superior arms on one side and primitive weaponry on the other, the Carol-ans retreated to their wooden fort, which enclosed three large nipa houses, in which the non-combatant Carol-ans, that is, the women and children, were sheltering. They all shut themselves up in these thatched houses and set fire to themselves. To the very end, as they were dying of asphyxiation and burns, they continued to defend themselves. A Spanish officer who tried to enter the fort as the flames engulfed the Carol-ans was killed by a spear that was hurled through the window of one of the burning houses.

The Spanish chronicler of this event, named Robustiano Echauz, ends his narrative with the following:

Few memories remain. The indios will forget because they are very susceptible to reduccion if peaceful methods and the policy of smooth and compliant attraction ingrained in our system of colonization are used. In this system the sword is to be used only when the circumstances demand. In this system the plow and work are the bonds of unity which today, for the glory of both governed and governing, bring unity in brotherhood to the inhabitants of the island of Negros.

As one can see from this unknown chapter in our history, the atrocity of ethnic cleansing is achieved not only through violent means. The Carol-an tribe of Kabankalan, Negros, was eliminated from the human race not only by rifle and cannonfire but also by historical amnesia brought about by the peaceful institutional—though we cannot say non-violent—apparatuses of Spanish colonialism. We today—my generation and yours and your children’s generation and so on ad infinitum—are as much the victims of this massacre in Kabankalan as the Carol-ans were in 1856. If we do not remember, much less know, in vivid and concrete detail how our people fiercely and nobly fought to preserve the integrity of their spirit and to defend the validity of their own traditions, we will always look outward in search of cultural and intellectual models to explain our daily lives.


When I urge you young writers to go back to your indigenous roots—read them, study them, internalize them, admire them, be excited by them, envy their genius, be one with them, speak for them—this is not to sentimentalize the ‘noble savage’ in us. This is not a call for the romantic revival of archaic forms, especially those forms that were produced in response to the need of the times and thus were valuable for their topicality and their temporal nature. (Although I must allow, too, for the constant need for such spontaneous forms in whatever place and time.)

Our indigenous roots are living and dynamic traditions. They are the narratives of our people’s historical experience, albeit told in the language of mythology. As creative writers we are, or should be, speakers for our people’s daily lives, mediated by a historical consciousness, and rooted in our indigenous concept of our cosmos and its laws. This basic tenet of creative writing applies, whether we are reviving folk forms or writing in the modernist, realist vein or engaging in post-modernist, multimedia experimentation.

It is a historical and political truism that the Philippines is concurrently a country of pre-modern, modern and postmodern societies. Our rural areas, countryside towns and villages, while we may sweepingly characterize them as pre-modern, possess at the same time some of the trappings of postmodern cities like Manila, Los Angeles, or Paris. For instance, in a secluded barrio in the province of Antique there has been for decades a folk ritual held every Black Saturday of Holy Week, revolving around a giant wooden phallus of an effigy of Judas. I heard about it only last summer and hastened to document it last Holy Week. I was much disappointed to see that the wooden phallus that I had heard being described in impressive hyperbolic language had shrunk to merely life-size and was in fact disproportionately small for the giant size of Judas’ effigy. The barrio ombudsman explained that he had prevailed upon the townspeople to keep it down to modest size because cable TV had inadvertently added a pornographic dimension to the multilayered meanings of this ancient, carnivalesque festival. He was of the conviction that the village children’s pristine minds, which had never been at risk before when in the presence of Judas’ giant phallus, needed now to be protected from the combustible combination of this folk ritual and electronic media.

Here is the raw material for a postmodern story, with the authentic setting of a rural but globalized village named after San Pedro (for whom the cock crowed three times) but which strangely ignores San Pedro in favor of that despicable traitor Judas and his marvelous but silent cock. There is no need for us to look towards Garcia Marquez’s Macondo nor Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha as models of our fictional Philippine microcosm. Right here among our local folk is all the material we need for our pre-modern, modern or postmodern stories.

We have traveled from Mindanao, where we are bodily located at this moment, to western Visayas, specifically Negros and Panay, where my heart and mind lie. As you can see, I interpret the significance of what I read, observe and discover only on the basis of my experience and knowledge of my own psychic locale rather than Manila, where I have been based for the past 20 years. Like Mebuyan’s spinning mortar, our center is what gives impetus to both the centrifugal and the centripetal movements of our artistic and literary creations. Only when we look inward to our center can we expand the circumference of our artistic expressions. Only when we speak for and from our own native traditions can we convincingly speak to the people of other traditions.

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the popular version of Tuglibong’s story. Once upon a time, the sky was so low that a woman who was about to commence with her chores hung her pearl necklace and bracelet on the sky. Then, as she pounded the rice in the mortar, her pestle repeatedly hit the sky so that it began to rise, carrying her jewelry along until it was out of reach. To this day, our elders say, we can see the woman’s necklace and bracelet as the star formation that the Westerners call the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Practically every people in the world has a myth that explains the various star formations in the sky. What is the story of Andromeda and Philoctetes for the Greeks is our story of the old woman and her pearls.

One may well say that all literature, if it is truly literature, is universal. Therefore, any story, if it is a good story, may speak for and of any country. This is to imply, conversely, that a country insisting on the temporal and local specificity of its literature is producing inferior, or even non-, literature. Well then, let them speak for their own country’s literature. But we will not let them speak for ours, as we have often been wont to do. A story coming out of another country is not our story; it is theirs. We have our own story to tell.

When we hear a story coming from outside our shores that sounds much like a folk tale that we had once heard from our grandma or our yaya, we are prone to marvel at the richness of the sources and borrowings of our cultural traditions.

There is, for instance, the swallowing of Lam-ang by the giant fish berkakan. This tale, we surmise, must have been influenced by the story of Jonah and the whale, or even by Pinocchio. The story of how a tribe in Mindanao became so materialistic that it was punished by storms and floods so that Lake Lanao now lies where those sinful people once resided must have been appropriated from the story of Sodom and Gomorra. And then there is the abundance of the flood myths all over our archipelago, which must have derived from the story of Noah’s Ark.

We have, however, an epic belonging to the Manobo tribe of Mindanao that explains why nations all over the world have literary motifs in common. A long time ago, the Manobo prince Baybayan, who hated war but loved only to sing and dance, was sent by his grandfather to travel around the world seven times, singing of the history and greatness of his people.

We can therefore presume that Baybayan sang his stories to India, in the Americas, in Europe, in Australia and so on. And these regions’ storytellers in turn passed them on to their own children. This explains why, all over the world, there are narrative and musical motifs that so uncannily resemble ours. Baybayan, our muse of epic poetry, is the source of all the world’s literature of all time. At the end of his journey, Baybayan was lifted into heaven on a sinalimba, where he now reigns in one of its seven layers as the Muse of Poetry, Music and Dance. And there he lords it over Rabindranath Tagore, William Shakespeare, Sappho, our own Leona Florentine and Jose Rizal, besides a host of all the artists ever produced by humankind. It is surely not a coincidence that the root word of his name, baybay, means “to spell” in several of our Philippine languages. Our Visayan word for poetry is binalaybay.

Artists and writers who credit their native traditions for their accomplishments take pride in the fact that they have stamped their identity onto the world by allowing their native roots to diffuse themselves into that world. To be internationally recognized is to be deeply rooted in the cultural traditional of one’s own nation. To be a functional global citizen, one must first be firmly rooted in one’s own soil. Our balete is a tree we venerate, with its massive trunk, lush foliage, and tangles of roots growing deep into Philippine soil. But its roots are also aerial roots, and we have no need to sever them in order to fly, to soar around the world seven times through our artistic creations....
There you go.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich