By Dexter R. Matilla and Lito B. Zulueta
Photo by Dexter R. Matilla
ALTHOUGH WRITER-TEACHER Resil Mojares has always been described as a Cebu-based scholar, the reach of his scholarship and thinking has always been national, and his renown, international.
Thus, it was only fitting that for its 53rd national conference in Cebu City, the Philippine PEN writers group should draft Mojares, without a doubt one of the most important Philippine-studies scholars, to deliver the annual José Rizal Lecture, traditionally the highlight of the PEN national congress. (Last year, he had keynoted PEN’s 52nd national conference at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.)
Mojares didn’t disappoint. In his lecture, titled, provocatively enough, “José Rizal and the Invention of a National Literature,” he charted the development of a truly national Philippine literature, from Rizal’s 1880 student essay on Miguel de Cervantes, “when the country’s literary space was qualitatively changing from ‘pre-national,’” to the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th, when the literature of the Filipinos “would, in the course of events, become distinctly ‘national.’”
Mojares said that Filipino writers initially asserted “difference… done typically on the basis of a claim to a distinct culture, history and identity.” This meant “disengaging from a dominant discourse that rendered one voiceless and invisible, carving out autonomous space… (and making) claims to a deep ‘native tradition’ and a wealth of local linguistic and cultural resources.”
This, Rizal did initially. He grounded the people’s literature “on their own history and wealth of social, psychological and linguistic resources,” Mojares said.
Yet, in a second move, Rizal also wrote the novels, since “he recognized as well that this literature can only grow through a vital conversation with the rest of the world.”
The two movements toward differentiation and internationalization, according to Mojares, was “a necessity, a belief shared by Rizal and his contemporaries.”
He explained: “Colonialism incorporates native subjects into a ‘world-system’ and puts them in a position where they have to engage with an external power. Creating a nation meant realizing that their culture was one that was already contaminated—yet vitalized—by foreign elements.”
Thus, to Rizal, the “global”—tainted by the colonial admittedly—has something to contribute in the making of Philippine national literature.
“He was clearheaded about the fact that a nation’s literary capital is built up not just by harnessing the local but by appropriating the foreign, diverting and absorbing its best elements in creating the nation’s literature,” Mojares said.
“Rizal knew that a nation’s literature is not just what it once was but what it has—and can—become,” Mojares said. “It must not only demonstrate that it has a past but a future.”
It is perhaps because of the future that Mojares apparently rejects any fixed construction of what should constitute as “the” national literature of the Philippines. He said that since “nation-formation is a continuing process, (so) the construct of national literature should remain creatively unstable and unsettled.” He added provocatively, obviously addressing the writers, “We have not unsettled it enough.”
In closing, Mojares said the challenge that confronted Rizal is the same confronting Filipino writers in the new century: “To assert difference… not only for the sake of being different, but difference that meaningfully revises and renews not only how we see ourselves but how others see us and themselves.”
Another challenge is to reconcile national and global push-and-pull, “recognizing on one hand the danger of being absorbed and lost in the discourse of the dominant others,” but also guarding against parochialism and insularity, “the danger of being trapped in a conversation that does not open out into the world.”
Quite revealingly, Mojares opened his very insightful lecture by dedicating it to the founder of the Philippine PEN, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José, who embodies the local, national and global push-and-pull exerted on the Filipino writer: He’s an Ilocano native whose ancestors were pioneers of the new frontier, Pangasinan, where José grew up; he was a provinciano like Rizal who was educated in Manila; and his novels are written neither in Ilocano nor Filipino, but in English, further translated into more than 20 other international languages.
“Among the writers in his generation,” Mojares said in his dedication, “(José) has been, in his social passion, the most Rizalian.”
Sad is the writer who writes well in foreign languages but cannot even read or write in his own, remarked Ilocano writer Sherma Benosa during the Luzon panel of the Philippine PEN conference in Cebu.
Benosa said that she decided to become a regional writer so as to take on the role of guardian of her mother tongue and the culture it represents.
While Ilocano literature seems firmly planted on good soil with the abundance of writers such as Benosa, Pangasinense poet Santiago Villafania describes Pangasinan poets as a paradox, unique and distinct like the rare kind of epiphytic plants that have been pushed on the verge of evolution and have virtually disappeared.
Villafania, who started writing in the Pangasinan vernacular only nine years ago, said the scarcity of publishers has historically bedevilled Pangasinan letters. He has tried to remedy this by creating a website, Dalityapi, showcasing poems in the Pangasinan language.
Since then, Villafania has published his second book, “Malagilion,” hailed by Cirilo F. Bautista as a “boost to Pangasinan literature,” and nominated for best book of poetry in the National Book Awards.
Carlos Arejola said the Bikol literary scene today as “rosy” because of “little initiatives” such as the Juliana Arejola-Fajardo Workshop sa Pagsusurat-Bikol and the Premio Tomas Arejola para sa Literaturang Bikolnon.
These literary projects, now on their seventh year, were named after his ancestors. And while running the two takes a lot of commitment—he and siter Lorna operate on a low budget—Arejola said they have contributed to the resurgence of Bicol literary arts.
Baguio, meanwhile, despite its rich folklore and its status as an educational center in Northern Luzon, is still without a “face” when it comes to literature, said writer Priscilla Supnet-Macansantos, the chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Baguio.
Once, there was Sinai Hamada, Macansantos said, and he could have been Baguio and the Cordillera’s flag-bearer in “modern” literature. But before he died, Hamada had abandoned creative writing for other pursuits.
“No one came after him,” Supnet-Macansantos rued. She said that in the late ’90s during the PEN annual congress in Baguio, F. Sionil José asked whether there was any Baguio writing to speak of after Hamada.
Perhaps stung by the remark, Supnet-Macansantos and other writers based in the summer capital organized themselves into the Baguio Writers Group, which has been holding poetry readings at UP Baguio and elsewhere, especially during the Panagbenga festival. She said that Baguio and Cordillera letters has seen a steady growth since then.
The 53rd Philippine PEN National Conference at the Montebello Resort Hotel in Cebu City was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Sen. Edgardo Angara and the Read Foundation, Anvil Publishing, Aria Edition, Asia Foundation, Ateneo de Manila University, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., Josephine Aboitiz Booth, Chinese-Filipino Business Club, De la Salle University, Instituto Cervantes de Manila, Embajada de España en Filipinas, International PEN (London), Japan Foundation-Manila, Doris Magsaysay Ho, Embajada de Mexico en Filipinas, Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), SM, Solidaridad Bookstore, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Washington Sycip, Marlinda Angbetic Tan, and The Varsitarian of the University of Santo Tomas.