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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, September 03, 2017

entry arrow8:30 AM | Literary Archaeology

Heritage work, above all things, is a fight against forgetting, and often it is a battle with formidable odds.

I have no idea what propels anyone to undertake a project as thankless and as often infuriating as heritage work—but they are out there, all of them tireless in the fight against cultural amnesia.

What drove, for example, Priscilla Magdamo to go all over the Visayas and Mindanao in the 1960s to collect folk songs that were slowly disappearing from the mainstream culture? What motivated Elena Maquiso to go to the mountains of Northern Mindanao in the 1980s to record the aging singers of the Ulahingan, or Salvador Vista to collect sugilanons from all over Negros? What inspired Ronnie Mirabuena to look for unarchived folk dances springing from Negros Oriental, or Jutze Pamate to recover and reappraise the paintings of Dumaguete portraitist Jose Laspinas? What compels Earl Jude Cleope at present to go around the Philippines to do extensive cultural mapping of far-flung islands in the archipelago?

The reason could be just singular spark and passion springing from the particular discipline each of them found themselves undertaking. I think each of them came to a point in the immersion in their fields where they finally ventured a crucial, existential question: I am perfectly aware of Western traditions, but what about the culture of where I come from? For many who arrive at this query, the immediate answer is often startling and horrible: no one knows. The bleak void of that realization often pushes those with initiative, or those who are naïve enough to not realize the quixotic nature of the possible quest, to try to find more concrete answers.

The ones who prevail become our cultural heroes.

I’ve mentioned heritage efforts in dance and music and visual arts. Let me discuss literature. A few short years ago, a team from the Commission on Higher Education came to Silliman University to evaluate the possibility of the Literature and Creative Writing Program of the Department of English and Literature be considered for the distinction of becoming a Center of Excellence or a Center of Development.

It wasn’t a bad idea. The program, after all, has produced many luminaries that have come to be giants in Philippine literature. It gave the first creative writing degree in graduate studies in the country. And through the Creative Writing Center, it currently administers the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, the oldest in Asia and the most prestigious in this part of the world. Our department chair then must have thought: what’s the harm in trying? So the department applied for the COE distinction.

The team from CHED—consisting of scholars and writers from various institutions from all over the country—was vigorous in their interviews and in their examination of our local academic holdings and programs. And we did try our best to present a good face, a good exhibit, and a good track record—but we did not get the distinction.

One of the reasons given by the evaluators was that, while we had a rich history of literature and creative writing, the department simply did not have a good program to archive and examine critically that history. We have fantastic local fictionists, poets, and dramatists, but our research was still geared towards the likes of Nick Joaquin and other so-called canonical writers, mostly from Manila. We have not archived the papers of our local writers and scholars. And we have not been publishing books and research that would put a spotlight on local literature. We were simply not interested to examine local literature—or so it seemed.

A comparison was made of the Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos, which runs various programs that not only archive and study the Cebuano language, but also its writers, its culture, its history, its scholars. Their archives are legendary, and their efforts at literary heritage work is all-encompassing. I found it ironic ultimately that the founder of the Cebuano Studies Center is the great fictionist and historian Resil Mojares, a Silliman alumnus, and his successor was poet Erlinda Alburo, another Silliman alumnus.

The whole episode with CHED made me think about certain things about local literary heritage work. First, I realized that only a handful of literary scholars and academics have written short histories and cultural studies of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop and the literary culture of Dumaguete’s premiere university.

Second, going beyond Silliman, scholarship that attempts at a definitive history of the literature or the literary culture found in Negros Oriental has been absent or scarce, often relegated to obscure academic journals and disappearing literary folios, because unarchived. Who are the literary artists from Bindoy and Basay, from Tayasan and Tanjay? What literary developments have occurred in our slice of the island?

Third, Oriental Negrense literature written in the predominant Cebuano language has largely disappeared as a driving force in local literary culture—or at least invisible because it is vastly unstudied, uncollected.

Fourth, save for the occasional efforts of the editors of the literary folio Sands and Coral, there really has been no major attempt at anthologizing the literary outputs of significant writers to come out of the province or Dumaguete.

And fifth, there have been no serious attempts at preserving the contributions or the memory of these writers, marking a conspicuous absence in an otherwise very literary city. This point makes me think of two specific Silliman writers. Who remembers Ephraim Bejar, and where are his socially provocative plays that took aims at a dictator? Who remembers Jose V. Montebon and what has happened to his fiction? At least the poems of Artemio Tadena are back in circulation, compiled and edited b Gemino H. Abad and Myrna Pena-Reyes into a handsome volume titled This Craft, As With a Woman Loved, published in 2016 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

The whole thing begs to be a kind of literary archaeology—digging up a heritage that is truly in danger of fading away. Some of us at the English and Literature Department—notably Lady Flor Partosa and Alana Narciso—have embarked on what we are trying to call the “Silliman Writers Project,” just to meet some of these challenges. The efforts are still inchoate, but at least we are beginning it.

At the main library, for example, we have combed the stacks and made a list of what books by local authors it currently has in its collections, and what it does not have—and the latter is quite considerable.

We have done an initial compilation of works by major Silliman writers, a process that took two years, and have housed the bound volumes in a new special cabinet, which should also soon house the volumes of books by local authors, as well as the archive of their papers.

Most of all, we are starting the publication of books. Young campus writers, especially those from the literature and creative writing program, are encouraged to put out their literary efforts through a book series called the Silliman Campus Writers Series. There are now short story collections and children’s books by Mike Gomez, Cahlia Enero, Veronica Vega, Beryl Delicana, and others.

And for the major writers who came before, there is a book series called the Silliman Writers Series, and the first one from that series is the collection of short fiction by the late award-winning writer Jose V. Montebon Jr., edited by me, titled Cupful of Anger, Bottle Full of Smoke, which we launched last August 26.

What’s next?

Perhaps the poetry of philosopher Claro Ceniza. Perhaps an anthology of plays by Roberto Pontenila, Lemuel Torrevillas, Bobby Flores Villasis, Leoncio Deriada, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela, Amiel Leonardia, Ephraim Bejar, and other Dumaguete dramatists. Perhaps an anthology of Binisaya literature from Negros Oriental. Perhaps a reissue, with English translation, of Elena Maquiso’s Mga Sugilanon sa Negros, of which only one copy remains in the library. Perhaps a collection of Spanish literature from Silliman. Perhaps a collection of Filipino literature from Silliman, including the poems of Leonilda Magdamo.

There’s so much to do, but in the name of the fight against forgetting, we go on with this literary archaeology.

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