Saturday, September 22, 2007

Does One Need to Use Filipino to Write Filipino Fiction?

Kenneth of Philippine Genre Stories seems to have re-ignited a debate that won't be ending soon. His more recent entry is The Continuing Conumdrum which talks about what defines Philippine Speculative Fiction (or Philipine Fiction for that matter). Bhex, on the other hand, seems to have taken an extreme (but insightful) position on the matter: that Filipino Speculative Fiction should be written in Filipino and must incorporate Filipino elements and culture.

As I said before, my views on most matters usually tend to avoid extremes but somewhere in the middle or a form of reconciliation between the various extremes. In countering Bhex's argument, there's this experience I want to clarify. I feel that a lot of Filipino writers, when someone criticizes them for not writing in Filipino, there is typically one of two reactions: either they become too defensive or they feel guilt. Personally, there is still a small sense of guilt within me whenever I write in English although whether it is justified or not is another matter. The concept of a single national language for the Philippines I think is flawed, not because it works and doesn't work for other countries, but because one has to take into account Philippine history.

Before the Spanish came and conquered this archipelago, some historians would argue that there was no Philippines as a nation back then. Instead, we were composed of several islands and tribes, each with its unique culture and dialects. Whether you agree with that theory is up to you but two things are undeniable: the archipelago was home to several languages and what truly united us was the invasion and subjugation by Spain. For three centuries, the "national language was Spanish", even as various groups retained their native tongue (but most likely somehow "evolved" into its present form although there are still tribes who retain their "uncorrupted" language). And then in the 20th century, the Americans came and initiated their own language policy (and perhaps gave birth to the Filipino national artists who write in English such as Nick Joaquin). Ironically, it wasn't until the Japanese occupation that a sense of native nationalism was instilled by the present government albeit tainted with Japanese agendas. And then the nation was finally liberated and English became the national language once again until the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown and Filipino was declared the national language. Also one must take current events into account. Presently there is Executive Order No. 210 which promotes English as a second language (The Manila Times has their own opinions on the matter). Of course I also want to clarify that a variant of Filipino (Tagalog) was already being practiced ever since the Spanish occupation, although its practice was perhaps limited in geographic scope (i.e. not everyone in the archipelago used it).

So why did I bring up that short history lesson? To show that the country's language development is unique and not to be limited in scope. We have Jose Rizal who wrote in Spanish because that was the de facto lingua franca at the time. Nick Joaquin wrote in English likewise. Francisco Balagtas wasn't writing in the national language of his era but it makes his work no less Filipino. I think it's fair to say that those who received an education prior to 1987 considers English as their national language, even as post-EDSA Revolution babies consider Filipino to be the national language, a reflection of the political and education policy of their childhood. I akin ourselves not to America but to a country like France, where there is one national language but many are in practice, or to a certain extent like Canada, in which two languages have official status. National language is not an intrinsic cultural heritage but more of a political ideology we inherit.

Back to the argument, must THE Filipino Speculative Fiction be written in Filipino? It could possibly be. But at the same time, I am not discounting the possibility that the great Filipino Speculative Fiction novel be written in English. Or Ilocano or some other dialect for that matter. History has shown, our very culture has shown, that the Philippines is culturally diverse and to pick merely one means of narrating is quite limiting. Of course Bhex's argument isn't that you can't tell a Filipino story in English or some other tongue, but rather it is less Filipino compared to one that is written in Filipino. But again, I don't think that's the case. Being Filipino isn't limited to one factor but to a lot of elements; it's not just about language but our mindset, our religion, our paradigm of the world. I definitely think the best Filipino Speculative Fiction can be told in English. But there is one thing I need to qualify: utilize the language that best suits the story.

During our last Lit Crit session, Dean mentioned that there are four ways to tackle Filipino dialogue in English text: 1) narrate it in English instead of spelling out the dialogue, 2) use actual Filipino, non-Filipino speakers be damned, 3) translate Filipino dialogue into English and 4) use broken English/transliteration. Now each of these techniques are valid depending on the story and how it is used. It's seldom a good idea to utilize #4 but Nick Joaquin is an example of someone who manages to translate beautifully Filipino words into English (albeit there's a certain disjoint between reading "pandesal" and "bread of salt"). Dialogue, on the other hand, depends on the subject matter and era. Two maids discussing soap operas for example will most likely use Filipino (or even a dialect) as a mode for communicating. Them speaking in English might be jarring to the reader. But two politicians conversing in English during the American regime is perfectly valid if not believable. I think the question of which language to use is addressed by the story and technique rather than a question of sheer nationalism.

And then there's the question of Philippine elements in the story: Filipino characters, Filipino myths, Filipino settings. Does a Filipino Speculative Fiction story need one or all of these elements to be truly Filipino? Well, the way I see it, if the question was phrased "does a Filipino Literary story need to contain Filipino elements?" If that was the question, I'd say perhaps (but for the most part, still a definite no). But Filipino Speculative Fiction? Not necessarily, especially since this is speculative fiction we are talking about. Speculative for me has been about breaking boundaries, testing the limits. It's about telling stories that go out of your comfort zone, and that might mean not using settings, characters, tropes, or even language that is familiar to you. I think via our nature, we'll subconsciously including something Filipino about it whether it's a mentality, a practice, or a world view. But one can easily write about a post-apocalyptic Neptune in a parallel past with Wendigo's and Yuki-Onna's and dancing sentient penguins yet still be Filipino. Perhaps not distinctively Filipino but Filipino nonetheless.

A more practical consideration albeit perhaps less artistic reason is translation. Do Filipinos have a Jay Rubin who will translate flawless Filipino into inspiring English? Which is to say even if the great Filipino novel is written in Filipino, there is no guarantee that the world stage will see it. That doesn't mean I'm espousing Filipino writers write in English. Rather that if you're comfortable in English, then go ahead and write in English. If you're more fluent with Filipino, keep at it. Better to master the writing style of the language you're familiar than butcher another (and is perhaps why English Filipino writers as much as possible avoid writing in Filipino). If there is a hesitation among English Filipino writers not writing in Filipino, it's because we're all too aware of the richness of the language and afraid that we won't be able to do it justice.

19 comments:

bhex said...

But one can easily write about a post-apocalyptic Neptune in a parallel past with Wendigo's and Yuki-Onna's and dancing sentient penguins yet still be Filipino.

...i have a problem seeing that. i think this can easily be called spec fic written by a filipino, but not a filipino spec fic. i can't see how you can talk about wendigos and yuki-onnas and sentient penguins in a uniquely filipino way, unless you write it in tagalog/iluko/hiligaynon/another filipino language.

incidentally, i subscribe to the thought that we have a lot of languages in the philippines, not just dialects. if they were only dialects, we'd all be able to understand and represent each other with less effort, which is obviously not happening :P

i agree, you can't say a story is not filipino just because it's written in english or another non-filipino language. and i agree that you can write great filipino speculative fiction in english, simply because 1) it's the language that you, as the author, are more comfortable with, and 2) it's the language that, as you've said, "best suits the story."

but you know, one of my long-term goals has been to write a viable science fiction story in filipino. and even if i can't do that, i'd like to see a well-written science fiction story in filipino, or another filipino language, though i would probably ask for an english/filipino translation. i'd like to imagine that a lot of great non-English slipstream and fantasy fiction has been written by Filipino authors already - it's just that by default, it seems, stories written in english gain more ground. i don't mean to cause people to be guilty or defensive, but i also mean to point out that we're all writing in english already - the ones who can only write in local languages don't have enough avenues to make their own brand of "filipino speculative fiction" known.

pgenrestories said...

Hi Charles. Hope you don't mind if I link to this post. TY!

cecille said...

hi charles. sorry if my comment just adds confusion to the very interesting discussion, but i think the issue lies on what "filipino fiction" means.

is it fiction about the philippines?

is it fiction written in filipino [tagalog, cebuano, etc.]?

is it fiction written by filipinos, regardless of language and subject matter?

all of the above?

is there a nationally accepted definition or does it depend on the authors, the readers, the critics?

bhex said...

... of course, being innately senile, i completely forgot to link to this blog: http://scipinoyfi.blogspot.com/. i have yet to read through all the entries, but i do think the blog deserves more exposure.

am still on the lookout for more pinoy spec fic blogs, in filipino or any other language!

pgenrestories said...

Hi Cecille. If I may, and I hope Charles doesn't mind my answering you here, your questions are exactly what's on our minds, me, Charles, Dean, Banzai Cat, Bhex, and I'm sure a host of others (I want to know what Tin, Mia, Kristel and the rest of the Read Or Die People have to say about this, and I'm hoping they'll post something too). I described it as a Gordian Knot that we're trying to unravel, and frankly, I'm not for just cutting it yet. I still think it's possible to unravel it. There is no nationally accepted definition yet, and everyone has his/her say on it for now. Spec. Fic., even Genre Fic., is very young in the RP, and even realist fiction sometimes faces these issues. Everyone has a right to weigh in because anyone could be right, could find that/those definition/s. Or perhaps it will make itself clearer through a text that will show us: "Yes, that's one that can identify the RP!", in the same way The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is clearly American, or The Faerie Queen is clearly English. It's not easy, but it should make itself clearer as we continue writing and develop a body of work that will show the trend. We have to continue writing our stories to find out.

Charles said...

Kyu: Plug away. I'm an attention whore.

Bhex: Simply put, I think there are ways to put Filipino sensibilities in a story although the most obvious method is through language. In the case of my example, one way to do so would be to highlight Filipino values. I mean we tend to give a high priority to family for example, as opposed to freedom if it written by an American for example.

As for avenues, there are indeed a lot of interesting Filipino fiction out there but saying we should write in Filipino, we should be writing Spec Fic, and that we should be promoting the works written in Filipino are different agendas (although they all lead to the promotion of Filipino literature). If you want to give spec fic written in Filipino an avenue, why not find a way to publish them? (Doesn't even have to be in print, it could be a website, -winks- -winks-).

Cecille: comment away. As Kenneth said, we have yet to settle the definition and I think that's wherein the problem lies. For example Bhex clearly has a specific definition when we talk about "Filipino fiction" and me and Kyu perhaps have a different albeit broader definition. The literati I'm sure has a definition as well. And that's why we're discussing these ideas, to ponder about them.

My only complaint about all those criteria is that it's limiting. If we don't mention the Philippines at all, does it mean our work is not Filipino? (Which might happen if we write about OFWs.) Must it be written in Filipino? See my entry on the history of the Filipino language and how "national language" has changed over the years. Must it be written by Filipinos? Well, those of mixed ancestry might write a story of mixed ancestry, not quite Filipino, not quite their other half. Similarly, there are writers who write about the Philippines yet aren't naturalized Filipinos. Fr. Reuter SJ who writes for the Phil Star is an example.

Kristel said...

Hi Charles. I will air some reactions on the RoD blog in a few minutes, but let me just say that your treatment of Philippine history is gravely simplistic. It wasn't some kind of international powow where everyone roasted marshmallows and happy. The Spanish and the Americans didn't just so happen to influence us. Those influences were thrust at us, often even violently. That kind of textbook analysis is terribly misleading.

If that's the way you see our history, I feel very sorry for you. Sorry, but this is an important topic for me.

Charles said...

Kristel: You're free to interpret what I've written just as the others have done.

However, I'd like to point out that while Spanish and American influences weren't necessarily welcomed in open arms (and I never said as much), who also said the same is the case for the Filipino language? Isn't Filipino--or its roots Tagalog--the lingua franca mainly because the Philippines has become Manila-centric? There have been numerous times where various subcultures in the country have vied for independence or a different language/dialect such as Cebuano or even English to be the national language. Some have even gone as far as to reject Filipino as the national language. I'm not saying that Filipino shouldn't be the default, but base on your comments alone, you're as guilty as being textbook bound.

Everyone of course is free to comment and talk about the matter at hand which I think is the more important point individual opinions aside.

You also talked about Ambeth Ocampo and perhaps one of the more important things I learned from him is that history is subjective and that many people will have different perspective on "what really happened". Which isn't to say that your arguments aren't valid, but there are other views on the matter.

bhex said...

(Doesn't even have to be in print, it could be a website, -winks- -winks-)

thanks for the hint, charles XD; but i really don't think a lot of people who write filipino (language) spec fic are eager to post their stuff online, for the exact same reason that i don't put most of my filipino-language spec fic online. if anyone wants to compile filipino-language spec fic, that person has to go around soliciting stories from schools and such - since with the loss of liwayway magasin, the offline avenues for filipino-language fiction - fil-language spec fic, especially - have been cut down significantly, and i believe that a grand majority of the people who can write brilliant pinoy spec fic are not online. it's worth a shot, though, i think, if anyone wants to take up the project...

if i may intrude on a comment you made to cecille:

Similarly, there are writers who write about the Philippines yet aren't naturalized Filipinos. Fr. Reuter SJ who writes for the Phil Star is an example.

fr reuter = not fiction. fr leo english, who authored the tagalog -> english dictionary that i use for work = also not fiction. neal stephenson's cryptonomicon = not filipino fiction. similarly, starship troopers and the novelization of star trek IV = not filipino fiction.

as i've said to kenneth in my blog: i've met a few non-pinoys who are enamored enough with the country to write about the philippines in their blogs. but the courage to write about the country in fiction (which, i presume, entails intimate knowledge and respect of the people, the culture and the history) is a wholly different matter. banzai cat gave a few titles that i'd love to check out, but at the moment - i'm hard pressed to consider anything that a non-filipino wrote as filipino fiction.

writing what i consider to be "filipino fiction" comes with a commitment to portray the philippines accurately, with due respect to its complex history, not a simplistic third party viewpoint. in this regard, i'd call "Walking Backwards" by Joseph Nacino (from the first Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology by Dean Alfar) a true filipino speculative story. so is "Kaming Mga Seroks" by David Hontiveros.

Charles said...

On Publishing: Somebody simply has to take up the mantle then. But obviously no one is doing so. So do we end up playing the waiting game?

Right now, one of the reasons why English Phil. Spec Fic has a voice is simply because someone is willing to publish them (i.e. Dean and Kyu). No one is stopping someone else from publishing Filipino Spec Fic although obviously, no one is willing to do either the work or the funding. (I don't want to play the "chicken-or-the-egg" card.)

On Fr. Reuter, SJ Sorry, I didn't make it clear. I mentioned Fr. Reuter as an example in another comment (your blog?) and there I stated that he doesn't write fiction. Anyawy, let's hypothesize that we can classify Fr. Reuter's writing as nonfiction. Is it possible to write Filipino nonfiction without being Filipino? If it's possible for nonfiction, is it not possible for fiction? I don't necessarily know the specifics of how to do it, but I am open to the possibility.

Charles said...

I also forgot to mention: since online publishing is a route, it's up to the authors to decide whether to publish it online or wait for a print publisher. If all opt for the latter, well, it's not the publisher's fault is it?

bhex said...

charles: you must understand that online publishing is not always an option, just because you or everyone else you know happens to think it is. it is not a route that a lot of people in the philippines have access to. it's not a matter of not making the effort, but it's also a matter of making the effort worthwhile, on the part of the publisher AND the writers who wish to be involved.

i personally may WANT a non-english online publication, but i am not confident that i have the time or the machineries to do so. if you feel that you do, then by all means, give it a shot.

Is it possible to write Filipino nonfiction without being Filipino? If it's possible for nonfiction, is it not possible for fiction?

a comparison between the standards of fiction vs nonfiction is pretty moot, i think. simply put, i don't feel like a scientist who's writing a paper about biosphere research being conducted in the philippines is in the same league as a science fiction writer who's writing a speculative story about biosphere research being conducted in the philippines. the medium and presentation are different, and the willingness to delve into cultural nuances are different. there is no need to delve into "filipino-ness" in the case of the nonfiction writer - however, there may be one, in the case of the fiction writer. it really depends on how the latter spins it.

as i've said to kenneth: you can write about the philippines, but if you're writing about it as a curiosity, or as a third-party observer, then you're not writing filipino fiction. as for the possibility of "filipino non-fiction"? i think that's a different area of discussion altogether.

kristel said...

Well, I'm confused. What I pointed out in my comment is how you omitted from your "history lesson" the violence and struggle that came with foreign influences. But you didn't argue against it what I said, you just went on a tangent about the Filipino language and it's dominance against regional languages. I'm assuming you're also commenting on my post on the RoD blog, but still. What? It doesn't compute.

But okay, since you brought it up. Yes, it's true that Filipino is is Tagalog-centric but that animosity didn't just "happen." Spanish colonialists pitted different regions against each other, from the classic Roman strategy of "Divide and Conquer." For example the Spaniards stamped down Diego Silang's revolt in Ilocos using soldiers from Macabebe, Pampanga. There countless more "Christian" indios inflicted on the "Moros." The strategy was meant to sow distrust, and that's what's happening. When it comes to language, I have issues about Filipino that I have yet to articulate, but I'll try to make sure my views are informed when I do so.

And if you've read Ambeth Ocampo you'll also notice that a big part of his body of work is devoted to de-mythologizing Rizal--meaning, stripping him off of the hero-imagery that the Americans created for him. Kaya nga "Rizal Without the Overcoat" yung title nung isang book. The Americans packaged his image that way because it was beneficial for them. The writing of history is subjective, yes, but it's never value-free and it's never neutral. People should always question how history is presented at them, or else we end up with spoon-fed information that may be false. Simply throwing one's hand in the air and exclaiming "But history's subjective and that's that," without grappling with the question sticks you back to square one with no new insights whatsoever.

Notice how I specifically say "writing history." The documents that talk about our past are subjective, but the events behind them aren't. When Americans air-raded Manila in 1945, for example, they not only killed the Japanese forces but a substantial number of the Filipino population as well, not to mention turning many historical Manila buildings into rubble. American-sanctioned history books don't advertise that, because it doesn't make them look so benevolent. Does that mean those corpses in Manila were subjective?

Also, I don't get what you mean when you said that I'm also limited by a textbook interpretation. My information don't come from textbooks but they do come from books. It's hardly responsible to just pull this out of my ass, is it? You were the one who introduced an argument through illustrating from history, I was merely pointing out the flaws in it. My point is, before you give your readers a "lesson," shouldn't you look deeper into things? There are a lot of good books out there in Philippine history, I can give you some recommendations if you're interested.

Charles said...

Let me clarify what you're saying. You're saying that Spain forced Spanish on us as a national language, just as American did and Japan did, right? If I omitted the historical violence, because I deem it not relevant to the discussion at hand (in my initial post, not in the comments). Okay, they forced a foreign language upon us. That doesn't change the fact that for a time, those were our national languages.

As for agendas, yes, everyone has an agenda. Quezon had an agenda when he ran against Aguinaldo for presidency and unearthed his crimes against Bonifacio. Sure, the Americans reinforced the idea of Rizal has a hero the same way the Spanish hailed Magellan as a hero and we're revising history so that we have Lapu-Lapu has a hero. My point is, having said all that, isn't it possible that the existing people in power are exerting the same influence to use Pilipino as a national language instead of some other dialect like Bisaya or Cebuano? We can quibble that the Spanish was guilty of determining our national language and the same goes for the Americans and the Japanese. But in the same way I can also quibble that Tagalog speakers are exerting the same influence to determine what is our national language.

Even all that aside, the history lesson has shown that language is determined by politics and there is no "inherent" national language. We have native languages but not necessarily a one true national language that holds true forever: we instead one that is determined by our present government.

When I talk about Ambeth Ocampo, I meant to look at the bigger picture and question existing assumptions. That's what i meant by textbook answer. I mean isn't it textbook answer to simply accept that Pilipino is the national language and that determines what our literature "ought" to be?

And at the end of the day, I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm not saying that Filipino fiction written in Pilipino and/or has Filipino elements can't be Filipino Spec Fic. What I am arguing however is that it be limited to that. For me (and this is my opinion), if there's anything that spec fic and Ambeth Ocampo both have in common, it's the ability to "think out of the box".

bhex said...

sorry to intrude again, but i feel like i have to clarify some things.

truth be told, charles, i've been avoiding discussing the language issue with you because i feel like you brought in a few major issues that were not in my original argument (i.e. filipino's validity as a national language, how some pinoy writers in english feel about the pressure to try and write in a filipino language, etc), but since it's clear that you feel strongly about these things, i understand if you have to bring them up.

I'm not saying that Filipino fiction written in Pilipino and/or has Filipino elements can't be Filipino Spec Fic. What I am arguing however is that it be limited to that.

before you said this, i don't believe anyone was saying this, so there really isn't an "argument," i think: there's just you saying that other people are saying that THE "Filipino" spec fic can only be written in Filipino. i personally can't tell who these "other people" are that you're referring to.

in my post, i originally said something written in english is not as "filipino" in nature as something written in filipino OR a regional language (i think i should have used the term "a philippine language" instead of "a filipino language" when referring to non-tagalog pinoy languages to avoid confusion) because, frankly - how much more filipino can you get? saying "Kinagat siya ng aswang at sinabi niyang 'Aray!'" carries more local flavor than "The aswang bit her and she said 'Aray!'" for one thing, there is no need to ascribe gender in "siya," and this already says a lot about how Tagalog speakers communicate.

of course we'll have to translate this passage into english in order to tell the story to someone who cannot speak Tagalog, but at least that essential component of the Tagalog speech - a uniquely Filipino mode of communication, one of many - is already lost.

you can certainly write a filipino speculative story in english, and it may well be THE definitive filipino speculative story; barely being able to convey the nuances of local speech does not invalidate its Filipino-ness, nor does it make your story automatically inferior in quality to any story that was written in Filipino. it just comes with a lesser degree of Filipino-ness than a story that was written in a local language.

this is essentially where i think our opinions differ.

Charles said...

No problem Bhex. Other people have also been adding their own interpretations to my statements.

The problem with your argument is that there is still a superiority vs inferiority discussion but I won't delve into that right now.

Suffice to say, several people have also thrown in their own interpretations so it's not necessarily your arguments that I'm addressing (again, they may not be saying this outright but some people are interpreting it as such).

Charles said...

Sorry, didn't clarify myself. "(again, they may not be saying this outright but some people are interpreting it as such)" is in reference to before you said this, i don't believe anyone was saying this, so there really isn't an "argument," i think: there's just you saying that other people are saying that THE "Filipino" spec fic can only be written in Filipino. i personally can't tell who these "other people" are that you're referring to.

bhex said...

The problem with your argument is that there is still a superiority vs inferiority discussion but I won't delve into that right now.

i won't deny that, but i do fear it's been taken to a level that i didn't originally intend for it to be taken ^^ so when you're ready to delve into it, your input is welcome.

...and i've read the comments but i still can't tell who it is you're referring to XD;

Charles said...

I think at this point it's irrelevant who I am referring to and whether my assumption is correct (that is, they didn't mean it to be that way yet whatever they wrote was interpreted as such). People are interpreting it as such which is why you and me have to clarify ourselves and it is a pertinent question.

If you want, let's just say that when it comes to the superiority vs inferiority question, I'd still present the same arguments, albeit with less extremes.

Oh, by the way, I love this le Guin quote from the intro of The Left Hand of Darkness: "If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination."