Filipino Identity

8 May 2006 at 4:18 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Last April 4, at the architectural marvel that is the new Instituto Cervantes beside Casino Español in Ermita, Manila, a round table discussion was held on the issue of “Filipino Identity.” Fernando “Butch” Zialcita, who had just published the book Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity, and bestselling author Jessica Zafra were with me on the panel, ably moderated by Chaco Molina.

I must say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed Zialcita’s book. It has to be one of the most significant books published in recent years. Based on solid anthropological research, the book tackles several answers to the question “What is Filipino?” and shows which of them are based on reality and which are not.

My comments on the book had to do not with its merit as a book, but with its unintended lack of appreciation for the long tradition of similar books written in Filipino. I should say this because I do not want to be misunderstood as rejecting the book. In fact, I recommend the book very highly to anyone that wants to know who and what we are.

Here are excerpts from the paper I prepared for the panel:

Since Butch Zialcita’s book does not refer to any of my books in Filipino nor to those of Virgilio Almario or Soledad Reyes, and refers only to the book in English that Bienvenido Lumbera wrote when he was still a student and had not yet fully developed his ideas in his books in Filipino, and since Butch is not only a colleague but a friend – in fact, we have known each other since college days – and therefore has nothing personal against the four of us, I can only assume that he is not that familiar with the parallel efforts being made in the field of literary theory and particularly with that area of it that is written in Filipino. Though as a literary critic I must admit I feel a bit slighted by it, I do not blame him for this oversight, since he himself says that his preference for Filipino as the intellectual language to discuss issues of identity has been stifled by the need to communicate with his colleagues and since no book can be expected anyway to be exhaustive; besides, his book is really an anthology of papers written primarily for social scientists attending conferences or reading journals.

This might be an occasion, therefore, to sketch, even at the risk of oversimplification because we have only a few minutes, how literary theory written in Filipino has approached the question of Filipino identity.

Butch says, “Whenever possible, I prefer to use the vernacular because this forces me to rethink abstract concepts in a clear, concrete way. Also, there is genuine communication.” Almario, Reyes, Lumbera, and I – and others, of course – have been using Filipino in our academic work as literary critics. Although we do not form a school of thought in the sense that we share the same views or even general philosophy, we do build on each other’s research and insights.

Almario has identified what he calls a Filipino Formalism in the practice of writing and reading poetry. He has done this primarily by going back to Tagalog critical texts written during the Spanish period. He became famous because of his early book on what he named Balagtasismo, or the tradition of poetry identified with Francisco Balagtas, the Tagalog poet who wrote Florante at Laura, which is required reading for all Filipino students in secondary school. He has moved considerably away from that book, with his later books going beyond Balagtas into the earlier traditions in Tagalog poetry.

Reyes has widened the scope of literary criticism to include not just poetry, which is the core of literature, but also previously marginalized forms, such as comic books, radio plays, and serialized novels in popular magazines. She became famous for her definition of the Filipino romantic mode, a concept that she has continued to develop in several books. Recently, she has focused on women writers that have been doubly marginalized, once because they are women and second because they wrote in unheralded literary forms.

Lumbera needed to write his doctoral dissertation, which is the book on Tagalog poetry that Butch includes in his references, in order to turn his back on his miseducation. Since then, as a professional scholar rather than as a mere student, Lumbera has moved deeply into literary theory, discovering that there is a concept of nationhood imbedded in various texts, and not only literary but cinematic and other texts.

I have myself, if I may be immodest, advocated what I call the concept of the Other Other, or Bukod na Bukod, as my latest theory book is entitled. Before my retirement from De La Salle University, I spoke at various international conferences, pricking the consciences of so-called postcolonial literary critics by assuming what I suppose is a stand strange to them, namely, that the Philippines is an ancient, first-world, and Western nation.

Obviously, we cannot debate all the issues that literary critics have been debating over the last forty years, with the four of us, if I can again be immodest, at the center of the debates. There are younger literary critics, such as David Jonathan Bayot, Caroline Hau, and Roland Tolentino, that are taking the debates into areas much deeper and more exciting than the four of us elders have explored, and the good news is that they build on what we have spent our lives doing. (The Philippine Star, 20 April 2006)

It is impossible to reconcile many of our views on national identity, but oversimplistically, I could say that we all agree that, first, it is not right to be primitivist (that is, to say that we used to be Filipino but became less so when foreigners invaded our shores); second, that there is something that foreigners did not give us (there is something traceable to our ancient ethnoepics that up to now still animates our literary and popular texts); and third, that we have always been global (even before foreign forms entered the physical boundaries of the country).

Butch can easily see how literary theory in Filipino can bolster many of his arguments.

Although we can understand the dissatisfaction Butch feels when he reads social science texts that marginalize the Philippines, we literary critics feel much more confident than he does, or perhaps than all Philippine social scientists do, because international encyclopedias on literature routinely include Philippine writers. Just look at the Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, the British (now American) traveler’s series on literature, the Fitzroy Dearborn Encyclopedia of the Novel, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and other major references of that kind. Or look at the annual bibliography of the Modern Language Association of America, which is the biggest association of literary scholars not just in the United States, but in the world.

Or look at the important role the Philippine Center of International PEN plays in International PEN, which is the world’s biggest and in fact the only international professional association of writers. Until it ran out of funds, the Philippine Center was deep into organizing the annual Congress in Manila. In May, the Philippine Center is, in fact, organizing the 31st UNESCO-ITI World Congress and Theatre Olympics of the Nations, a clear recognition by the international art community of the sophistication and maturity of Philippine artists.

Of course, we literary critics deal primarily with written texts, though most of us also talk about non-written texts, especially Tolentino, who has a series of books out on skin whiteners, malls, and the like. Most relevant to the book of Butch is Tolentino’s Paghahanap ng Virtual na Identidad (Looking for Virtual Identity). Social scientists like Butch have to deal with reality, as opposed to the virtual world of literary and quasi-literary texts.

Let me cite another literary critic – Gemino Abad. I did not mention him earlier because he writes in English and is more accessible to Butch, although Abad also does not merit mention in the book. Abad says that the world is made up of words. Of course, Abad borrows this insight from the structuralists, who have a lot in common with social scientists, because the linguist Roman Jakobson, heavily influenced by the linguist Ferdinand du Saussure, himself heavily influenced the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, used by Butch in his book. If the world were indeed made up of words, then it is the literary critic that we should turn to if we want to understand the world. Now, that is surely immodest.

I have to say that I enjoyed the book. It is very well researched. It is not afraid to point out the errors of others, even big names such as O. D. Corpuz, who misreads Sinibaldo de Mas. It uses personal knowledge, though anecdotal, as a counterpoint to the impersonality of much research. It is also well written, which literary critics appreciate.

One passage particularly strikes me. Butch writes, “The eighteenth-century German aristocracy derided German and German literature. They spoke with each other in French. As a result, French words abound in German, often in their original spelling. Though Frederick the Great of Prussia warred against the French king in 1757, he was a Francophile in his readings and in his speech. He confessed that ‘since the days of my youth I have not read a German book and I speak German no better than a coachman.’”

Let’s change the word German to Filipino and French to English and change the setting to the Philippines today. The passage would read: “Today’s Filipino leaders deride the Filipino language and literature in Filipino. They speak with each other in English. As a result, English words abound in Filipino or Taglish, often in their original spelling. Though Filipino political and industry leaders claim to have been independent since 1946, they are Americans in their readings and in their speech. Some, maybe most of them can truly confess that, since the days of their youth they have not read a book in Filipino and they speak Filipino no better than their drivers.”

Since literary theorists like to debunk earlier theories, I love the way Butch debunks these ideas: that Americans introduced public education, that Filipinos have a bayanihan spirit, that corruption is the main problem with our government, that Marx advocated communal property, that the elite betrayed the Philippine Revolution, that we practice a split-level Christianity, that we suffer from cultural schizophrenia, and that there is such thing as Asia.

To all my readers: get a copy of the book and find out why we are what we are. (The Philippine Star, 27 April 2006)

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