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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, May 12, 2008

entry arrow10:04 AM | Dogberry Bites the House on a Hill

Have you ever begun reading a book, only to stop midway through the first chapter, and tell yourself, "I'm not mature enough to read this yet"? I have, many times. What I do then is to put the book away, and wait ... and get a life. And then, in a month or a year, or two, I do go back -- and what usually happens next is something magical: the text suddenly becomes clear and intimate, and the book suddenly becomes a precious part of my reading life. (This sometimes happens with films, too.) What happened in the interim? Perhaps a case of simply growing up, and maturing. I know this to be true: appreciating things properly sometimes takes time and maturity, and when we bark too soon, it's really like being a dog barking at the wrong tree. Nobody wants to be a dog.

This is a good introduction to my rant below.

When I read professional blogger and Manila Standard Today* columnist Connie Veneracion's recent blog post on National Artist Amado Hernandez's Mga Ibong Mandaragit a few days ago, I felt angry -- but I didn't exactly know then how to articulate why I felt that way. Maybe because I liked the book, and found her put-down uncalled for? Maybe it was the smug way she wrote about it?

I've been teaching Philippine literature for years now, and I have designed my [very demanding] curriculum to balance things out for my students. I take up popular (and easy-to-digest) texts such as the ZsaZsa Zaturnnah and Wasted comics and the poetry of Angelo Suarez. But I also take up more challenging fare like Dean Alfar's imagination-bending novel Salamanca and the what-the-? poetry of Paolo Manalo. I guess I am in a position to know first-hand the whole gamut of student reaction to a variety of texts. There are literary texts some students love, and there are texts they absolutely hate. None of these qualities stay fixed. Tastes change, and sometimes in the same term, too.

I have always believed that one important goal in teaching literature is to be able to take students out of their comfort zones, to push them to face new worlds and different realities. That's how you create thinkers. That's how you mould creatives. Why make them read "easy" stories that will simply reaffirm what they already know about the world? They may laugh and recognize the people in these stories, but what are you exactly teaching them? The point of art is to know new things or to see old things in a new light, to be moved or to be disturbed, to generate conversation, to make people think.

I do have students who have trouble with the written word, simply because they're not used to reading vigorously anymore. This is true in a world that's replete with television images and text messaging -- but that's an old complaint that has become stale with every repetition. (Which, of course, does not make it untrue.) A tragic majority of young people don't read books at all, and if you crawl through the thousands of Friendster profiles online, many of them even crow about being non-readers as if it was something to brag about. Crawl through these Friendster profiles again, and some would even list down, under the column of "Favorite Books," things like Cosmopolitan magazine. Many times, asking my students to read a short story can be a challenge. Asking them to imagine a different world in these stories -- with people whose lives don't exactly mirror their own -- is even more challenging. Asking them to read a novel is asking for the moon.

Sometimes, they find reading stories and poems "boring" -- but in my years of teaching, I've since qualified that observation to one unacknowledged reality: being bored over something is more often a reflection of who you are than of the quality of the text itself.

There are "difficult" texts to digest, yes, but I've since found out that "digestion" is more often a matter of closely studying where students come from -- their backgrounds, their reading levels, their biases, etc. In a World Literature class, I remember once taking up the stories of Flannery O'Connor -- especially "Good Country People" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Many of my students hated them. When I told them that critics actually consider these as being among the masterpieces of modern short stories, they cried, "What?!" And then I finally explained the stories, touching on the symbolism and the motifs and the use of language -- things that well-read people from O'Connor's time would already know. At the end, I could almost feel the palpable magic of the whole room responding to a sudden understanding. Many of them went back to reading the stories, and many of them came back to me saying they actually liked the stories this time around.

My point? The art of appreciation is ultimately colored by where you come from, so don't judge anything -- books, paintings, music -- as being flawed, especially if you're the one who lack the tools to understand the nuances of the text at hand. Your ignorance and your personal incompetencies should not be the standard by which something should be judged with.

The same thing usually happens when I teach Manuel Arguilla's classic short story, "Midsummer." After assigning it for discussion in the next session, my students usually come back to me complaining that they hate it because "nothing happens," that the story is just about "a boy, a girl, and a carabao." I merely smile, because I know what usually happens after: in the next session, when we begin to peel the many layers of this "simple" story, they begin to see the nuances of the narrative, especially the complexities of Ading, who know more than we are led to believe, the ultimate spider spinning her web. "This is the most igat story every written by a Filipino," I tell them. In the end, they all will nod with such smiles, having gained an ounce or more of appreciation for something they have never encountered before.

All of which explains my disgust over Connie's essay, which I won't even dignify by quoting.

And that is why I am happy with multi-Palanca awardee Exie Abola's rebuttal in his column in Philippine Star. Read the entire thing here, in his blog. Angela Stuart-Santiago also calls Connie's post stupid.

* Then again, with a newspaper like this (it's also home to Malu Fernandez), why expect good columnists?

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