Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Essay: Filipino Fiction and Globalization

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

It is with some hesitation that I talk about the topic of globalization, especially because I will be bumping heads with one of the nation's talented writers, F. Sionil Jose. Now I'll give credit where it's due and he is a skillful writer who does not need to prove anything. In fact, it is a testament to his writing that his article "Should Our Writers Globalize?" published earlier this month in a national broadsheet provoked such a reaction from me.

Correct me if I'm wrong but the impression Jose gives me is that for him, "globalization" is such a dirty word. It's the anti-thesis of what he stands for, of everything that is culturally Filipino. For me however, this view is myopic. Is globalization evil? Sure, it has its many disadvantages. Homogenization is always a lurking fear of the xenophobic. And yes, many Filipinos have found failure (abuse, rape, death) abroad. But that is only one side of the coin. Globalization has also brought progress and well, one of our biggest assets as a nation is our ability to export human resources. While many cry out against the latter with terms like "brain drain," we must also remember that we chose this path. If there were indeed lucrative jobs to be found here, then wouldn't the rest of the country have utilized that option instead? (There is also the plight of the comic artist.) I see globalization as a door, both with perils and opportunities, but the bigger Pandora's Box is that it's here. We can't excise globalization from our vocabulary any more that we can deny that we were once colonized by Spain. It's now part of our culture, it's here, and we can't pretend that we're an isolated country. Japan tried that once, before, and when the black ships finally came, they were quickly overwhelmed, not by force of arms but by the culture it brought along with it.

If there is anything I will agree with Jose, it is that "we will write as Filipinos." Who we are will definitely come out in our writing. That's not to say there aren't those who will attempt to be derivative or mimic a particular voice or style. There will always be those, irregardless of whether we will be globalized or not. But if a writer is writing from his or her own voice, then their own culture will become evident, whether subtly or at the forefront of their fiction (or nonfiction as the case may be).

My agreement however stops there. I take issue with "We will write as Filipinos, free from the influences of our colonizers, from the canons they imposed on us. In this way, we will not be swept under by the dulcet enticements of McDonald’s, Toyota and Harry Potter." It is as if any of those experiences can be isolated, or that they are not part of the Filipino experience. For example, our colonizers brought us a lot of things. Religion for one. It's here and it can't be revoked. A good chunk of the nation is Catholic. We can't eradicate Catholicism just because we will it so. And we've certainly appropriated that religion for our own, whether it's our version of the pasyon or the numerous variant religions and cults that have sprung up ever since. And McDonalds, Toyota, and Harry Potter? They're here as well and have become part of our culture. What is Jollibee if not to be juxtaposed with McDonalds? Are automobiles simply to disappear simply because it's by Toyota? And as much like or dislike one might have of Harry Potter, Filipinos are reading it and writing fan fiction. Is that globalization? Perhaps. But it's also the Filipino experience. To be Filipino and to globalize are not mutually exclusive. That's like saying when one becomes an OFW (Overseas Foreign Worker) or an expat, one ceases to be Filipino. More importantly, one can write about those experiences and still be Filipino. (The recently published The Flip Reader edited by Jessica Zafra even has numerous articles where to be global is to be Filipino.)

And the irony here is that Jose thinks that to globalize is to surrender our individuality, our culture yet nothing can be further from the truth. It is because of our individuality, our culture that Filipinos might appear lucrative in the global scheme of things, especially when it comes to our fiction. Why would, say, an American want to read derivative work that he can get from his own country? If anything will appeal to foreign readers, it is what makes us distinct.

Jose falls prey to a misconception although granted, it is a prevalent misconception. A friend was once being interviewed and when asked why she did not attempt to sell her fiction elsewhere (outside of the country), she replied that she thought no one would be interested in it because it's set in the Philippines. When I heard that, I immediately replied that's not the case. And to even prove my case, my friend's fiction has been lauded abroad.

And then there's the Man Asian Literary Prize. I don't profess to have read the finalists but I'd like to think that each of those entries are reflective of their nation in some way and not an attempt to remove everything that is culturally representative of them. And in the end, that's why we read various international authors: because in their writing, there is a sense of their culture. We can claim that there is something Latin American with Gabriel Garcia Marquez for example. Or something Japanese with Haruki Murakami. And yet, these are the writers operating in a global marketplace.

Globalization for the Filipino is apt to me, especially considering many of my fellow countrymen can be found around the world. We're in Saudi Arabia, Japan, America, Italy, etc. Heck, our speculative writers can be found in France, in Netherlands, in Singapore. Why not write about them? We simply can't write about Filipinos living in the Philippines. Those living abroad aren't any less Filipino than we are.

Who should Filipinos be writing for? That's best left for them to decide. But if you want to write about local experiences, then go for it. The burden of adapting it to a global marketplace is best left to the editors and the translators. Or sometimes, we're simply underestimating the intelligence of international readers. And if you want to write with an eye towards the global arena, then go ahead. We can't escape our being Filipino. Don't be guilty just because you're not following the dictates of the Philippine literati.

Jose uses beautiful words like metastasis. I called it stagnancy. And unfortunately, stagnancy plagues us, not just in the realm of literature. Jose clearly looks to the past, what with all that sense of nostalgia and praise for what has come before him. I'm not saying we shouldn't respect the authors of the past--we should. But the fiction of Jose Rizal for example belongs to a certain period in history. The present will always call for change but it's louder now, especially with globalization inevitable. Why let our literature become stagnant when the opportunity to innovate and to promote is here? Look at Philippine speculative fiction. I doubt it if the writers here are consciously thinking of an international audience but those works written with Filipinos in mind are definitely finding a global market. One doesn't get as self-referential as "Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang" by Kristin Mandigma but there's a story that's gained some popularity--and not just from Filipinos.


coffee fiend said...

Toyota's cashing in on the power of cuteness

CMC said...

F. Sionil Jose is a nationalist and, I would think, is pretty much aware of the politics behind globalization. It isn't this neutral thing. Whose idea of culture and civilization would dominate this global arena? Obviously, the economic and military dominant ones. What Jose is afraid of is the dissolution of the Filipino identity and culture in the face of massive cultural dominance of America and Europe. In a globalized world, being "Filipino" may just become a contract, a piece of document one can change in favor of citizenship in a better, richer country. And we cannot exoticize and orientalize ourselves as a justification for our existence. We must be critical with our engagement with the world. We do not need to be isolationists but to fully embrace an idea of the world without question is like being colonized without firing a shot.

Charles said...

There's a difference between caution and discarding it altogether and if Jose wanted to emphasize the former, he would have said so. It's either that or he was a lousy writer in his essay and I don't think it's that.

CMC said...

Jose is old school nationalist and just plain old. His idea of nationalism is antagonistic of anything that is "foreign". But our experience of colonization puts our relationship to this "foreignness" in suspect or at least in a precarious position. A lot of appropriation has happened and is happening. What I'm trying to say is that we engage the world in our own terms not by any "global" (a nice word but how global is it really?) standard. Jose said that "For those of us who write in English, since English has become the lengua franca of the world, our literature will have a global reach even without our intending it." Even so, it doesn't mean that when you write in English, the world would read you. It might have the possibility of reach but we do not write for "them" as Jose said, "We are writing for ourselves and for our own people." "Progress" does not equate to "global" or "globalized". I don't fully agree with Jose's ideas of nationalism but I also don't agree with the shrugging aside of the paradoxes of globalization. It cannot be denied but it doesn't mean it cannot be examined and scrutinized. Being in a "globalized world" doesn't mean we, the people of the world, are all equal. Nations and countries are being taken advantage of by richer and more powerful countries. Somebody will always be on the margins, most probably us. That's why I think Jose's reaction was like that. Granted his nationalism is stuck in the 60's but it has its own virtues.

Charles said...

Of course the nations aren't equal. And just because you write something doesn't mean the rest of the world will read it. Anyone who believes it as such is naive.

But neither what Jose said or what you're trying to imply helps the Philippines. At best, Jose espouses isolation and you, caution without a suggestion of plodding forward.