Is there such a thing as national literature?

14 April 2009 at 3:18 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

One reader asks, “Do national paradigms cross languages or not? Will a trilingual Swiss writer write the same story the same way in French, German, and Italian?”

I am not an expert on Swiss literature. Let me give what must be a similar example from Philippine literature.

There is Philippine literature in Tagalog, Philippine literature in Cebuano, Philippine literature in Iluko or Ilokano, Philippine literature in Chinese, Philippine literature in English, Philippine literature in Spanish, and so on. There are more than a hundred languages spoken in the Philippines, about twenty or so of them with living literatures.

Philippine literature in English is clearly very different from Philippine literature in Tagalog. It is not just the language. The themes are different, the poetic forms are different, the rhyme schemes are different (Tagalog does not rhyme only in terms of sounds, but of equivalent consonants), the sensibility is different. Even the quantity is different (Tagalog has thousands of novels, English has only a couple of hundred).

Although there have been a few English translations of Tagalog novels, it is clearly the novels originally written in English that have caught international attention. (One such novel, Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, won last year’s Man Booker Prize.) We cannot argue that this is due to the huge number of English-speaking literary critics around the world; such critics do not necessarily take time to study English novels from Singapore, Hong Kong, and so on (postcolonial literary theory harps on such marginalization).

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