Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Philippine Literature

Going back to the topic of Filipino books, part of the problem isn't necessarily in the available literature our nation has but in choosing which is literature and which isn't.

This sentiment has been echoed before and not just by me: the trend in what constitutes as "literary" is that the body of work has to be socially relevant, as if by writing we're solving the country's poverty problem. Which is a lofty goal I think but honestly, when I pick up a book, I want to enjoy the story, not because it'll cause social change.

Thankfully, in my experience, there's more diversity in books written by Filipino authors but are written in English. When it comes to works written in Filipino, we could really use a poster boy, the equivalent of Harry Potter that will sweep the masses off their feet and yet be similarly embraced by the literati. I mean Filipinos do read, they just don't read books. Or rather books approved by the literati. I'm tired of mentioning the Tagalog romance novels but hey, they're here and they've lasted longer than komiks. Of course my problem with Tagalog romance novels isn't in their popularity but in the fact that there's no one specific novel that stands out like a banned book the masses can call their own. Filipinos have a love affair with a genre but not with a specific novel.

Strangely enough, if there's an icon that Filipinos can cling to, it's probably in komiks. We have the likes of Panday, Captain Barbel, Darna, and Zuma. These are probably the closest things we have to literary characters yet there's a resistance to accept them by the literati simply because they're not the product of books but that of komiks. Or worse, their movie counterparts which is what the current generation is more familiar with (in contrast to the generation that were reading about them from komiks).

Of course I'd like to point out that Pilipino is still a young language, barely more than a century old. Tagalog has lasted longer than that but while Pilipino draws upon a good portion of the language from Tagalog, for me Pilipino and Tagalog aren't the same in the way that there's a distinct different between American English and European English. And perhaps the more significant difference is that Tagalog is attached to a region, while Pilipino is not only associated with just a region but a nation.

I've seen (and thankfully read) some good Filipino-written (in the sense that it's in Pilipino) novels. Of course the reason I read them in the first place is because they were required reading for class. Luwalhati Bautista's Dekada 70 or Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa are examples. I mean I've read the latter and I love it, but honestly, I wouldn't have picked it up if there wasn't a movie based around it or more importantly, if I didn't need to pass Filipino class. And unfortunately, that's how some of us get acquainted with books in general. Perhaps what me a bookworm isn't that I read a lot, but I read when not being coerced by some outside force (whether it's school or the latest fad).

The other book I read in Pilipino was Jose Rizal's Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Of course you have to bear in mind that these are Pilipino translations as the originals were written in Spanish. My main qualm about reading these books is the question of whether we're reading them because they're actually of good quality in terms of writing, or because they're simply the novels written by our national hero. I could live with the fact that we're reading them because they're historical footnotes but not because they're tagged as literary and they're actually not (not that I'm saying they aren't, just a point to mull upon). I think this is where our agenda of being nationalistic and socially relevant comes into play, and perhaps (sadly) the expectation that all future Filipino novels should be the equivalent.

Perhaps I was too hasty in my conclusion that komik characters were the only iconic characters in Filipino literature. Another that comes to mind--and I enjoyed reading--were the works of Balagtas and his verse Florante at Laura. Same goes for Ibong Adarna. Of course the problem with the two is that they aren't necessarily novels in the strictest sense but rather they're verse. And perhaps the tragedy is that we're not seeing them performed enough. And when I say perform, I really mean perform. I mean sure, we might read Shakespeare, but Shakespeare's plays were meant to be plays. While simply reading them is enjoyable, watching it being performed on stage is probably more entertaining. Unfortunately in the case of Florante at Laura, no one's singing it. It's reduced to a textbook story that's simply being read.

The biggest problem I think is that with the exception of komiks, all that I've mentioned are the products of schooling. Where's that entertaining Filipino novel that wasn't required reading for class? Sadly, aside from what I mentioned above, most likely people's favorite novel written by a Filipino author will probably be one written in English (and I'm not sad about the fact that it's in English, but the fact that we're not exploring the potentials of Pilipino, or how there aren't enough good writers that are getting published). So far, the good Filipino writers writing in Pilipino can be found in other mediums such as in radio, in TV, and in film.


Anonymous said...

my favorite filipino novel is still Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and i'll keep pushing it onto anyone who asks me for a filipino novel recommendation.

the most recent filipino novel that really made me catch my breath was Mondomanila: O Kung Paano Ko Inayos ang Buhok Ko Matapos ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay by norman wilwayco - which, sadly, had to be independently published due to lack of funds and institutional backing. only a few copies made it into the market. (i even had to borrow my copy from a friend of norman wilwayco, who borrowed that copy from norman himself.)

i would like to know where you think good filipino writing is in pop media. i don't see much evidence of it on TV, i don't see it very often on film (good writing is usually found in independent productions, which aren't widely available at all)... and while AM radio scripts are generally well-written and in filipino, more people listen to FM radio (at least in metro manila), and it seems filipino there is only ever used to crack corny jokes.

you know where i think the good filipino writing in pop media is? advertising. during the most recent election period, i noticed there seemed to be a surge of clever filipino puns and witticisms on TV and radio, which i find quite fascinating. if these ads actually prove successful as marketing devices, they may yet pave the way for a better appreciation of filipino as a modern language. it doesn't seem far-fetched at all when you consider how consumerist the whole of our pop media is.

Charles said...

My problem with Filipino books is that there's no single author whom we can claim is really really good. I mean when it comes to English Filipino authors, we can spout names like Nick Joaquin, Krip Yuson, etc. but not much for Pilipino-Filipino authors.

Haven't been watching TV lately and I can't think of one that's currently airing. Decades ago though, we had the likes of Batibot and the show Game Plan was okay.

As for film, you said it yourself, it's not often and it's not necessarily always big productions but it's there. I really liked the documentary Imelda for example.

I think the Philippines has always been advertising-centered, as evidenced by our highways filled with billboards. I think there are some clever ads out there, aside from the usual election jingles, but much like anything else, the good is mixed along with the bad.

Anonymous said...

I think the lack of non-English Filipino books is also because, in school, we weren't as trained and exposed to write in Filipino as we were in English. Almost all papers we needed to submit for school were required, or at least expected, to be in English: technical essays, reaction papers, creative writing, theses, etc.

It's a paradox. Most educated Pinoys prefer to converse in Filipino, but feel more comfortable writing in English. :)

Anonymous said...

I mean when it comes to English Filipino authors, we can spout names like Nick Joaquin, Krip Yuson, etc. but not much for Pilipino-Filipino authors.

there's always ricky lee (who's turned out some disappointing stuff these past several years, i admit), rogelio mangahas, and edgardo m. reyes, among the notable pilipino-filipino prose artists of the age.

among the contemporary poets, though, i think there are more who might be worthy of mention - alwin aguirre, virgilio almario and teo antonio are the first names to come to mind. people just tend to be more enthusiastic about the pilipino-english writers online. i guess it's because the readers are themselves not so comfortable with filipino, as balatstar had said.

oh but most of imelda was shot in english! imelda marcos herself spoke mostly in english in all her soundbites. i'm thinking the closest we can get to laying a claim to good fictional filipino writing that achieved commercial success in film is magnifico and ang pagdadalaga ni maximo oliveros (both, incidentally, by the same japanese-filipino playwright!)

while i agree that the good is mixed with the bad in advertising, and pretty much anywhere else, with 99% of everything being crap, i was still quite impressed with the filipino ads for sunkist iced tea, mcdonald's and um, combantrin? the luxury drink, multinational fastfood and deworming drug industries got themselves some good copywriters, is all i'm saying.

Charles said...

Balat: The English textbook problem arises from the fact that until the end of the Marcos Era, English was the default language being taught. It wasn't until Cory's time that it was reversed to Pilipino (and now GMA reverted it back to English). By then, English had its own momentum.

Bhex: I'm ignorant of the Pilipino prose writers, so... Of course of the three, only Ricky Lee sounds familiar, but I always thought he just did screenplays and the like instead or prose.

For poetry you're right. I think our Pilipino poetry is definitely stronger than our Pilipino prose.

You're right about Imelda. I forgot, I stopped watching films in Tagalog.

Anonymous said...

i was pretty surprised about ricky lee too; i used to think he just did cheesy TV dramas and the stray melodramatic movie title. but over a decade ago i found this book called Kabilang sa Nawawala which was a ricky lee book that was supposed to be a how-to of screenplay writing. i saw it contained prose ("Kabilang sa Nawawala" is a beautiful novelette, realist in the trend of 1970s reactionism) and i was quite taken by the way he used his words.

i do hope you can find the time to give good pilipino-filipino prose writers a shot. the local publishing environment is so unfriendly to filipino prose writers that the ones who DO get published are usually really good.

Anonymous said...

Tagalog and Filipino are the same. Filipino refers to Tagalog, a region, and to think it is nation is pure myth. Filipino is a dialect of Tagalog (Manila variant), thus, it is under the same language as traditional Tagalog. Consult linguists if you desire.

Let's not fool ourselves; call an apple an apple, and we non-Tagalogs are the losers here in this Philippine literature scene.

Notice how all the works you mentioned are Tagalog? It's because you Tagalogs are marginalizing us in this nation-building, part of that is "national" literature.

Will my Kapampangan writings ever be admitted in these national literature conventions or contests?

I doubt.