By John Iremil E. Teodoro, Contributor
The Daily Tribune
A happy and historical gathering of wordsmiths with phallocentric and Manila-centric overtones
This is from my friend, the excellent poet and critic John Iremil Teodoro, who writes from the magical island of Panay. I wish I have his energy, his passion and his time to write. Writing needs necessary leisure.
But this budding, bading politician has shifted his directions. On this day alone, I have to attend not one, not two, but three political meetings.
And there goes that new poem out of the window. Sigh.
According to Ricardo de Ungria, a poet of the first magnitude and the director of Taboan: The Philippine International Writers Festival 2009, “the original idea was for a simple get together of writers from all over the country who have been recipients, directly or indirectly, of grants and awards from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). What happened last Feb. 11 to 13 was far from being simple as 105 creative writers, including three National Artists of Literature, from all over the Philippine archipelago congregated at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Ateneo de Manila University and Cubao Expo. Taboan became, again to quote the ever-energetic hunk of a festival director, “a celebration of the written word as it is practiced in our country today. For three days, it assembles writers from different regions for them to get to know one another, speak their minds out on various topics and issues of the day, and discover new ways of performing the word and turning it upside down.”
Taboan is the Visayan term for “assembly,” “congress,” “marketplace,” “meeting place,” or “rendezvous.” The word is also used in Palawan for “market day.” Taboan is the literary component of the National Arts Month 2009. NCCA chairman Vilma Labrador explained that Taboan “is more than just a gathering of writers and a conference of lectures, literary readings and performances. Taboan is a meeting place for the minds; it is a celebration of the great Filipino literature, an inspiration for creativity, and a fostering of the talents of the Filipino writers.”
I was part of the Western Visayas delegation. I sat as panelist in two sessions during the third day of the festival that was reserved for the young writers like me. NCCA’s definition of “young” is 40 years old and below. The first two days were devoted to speeches, lectures and panel discussions by the senior writers, those whose age is from 41 to 84. Yes, National Artist F. Sionil Jose is already 84 but is still actively writing. He delivered the keynote address during the opening ceremonies held at the Pulungang Claro M. Recto, Bulwagang Rizal, University of the Philippines in Diliman. Jose’s speech posed a challenge to the Filipino writers today which is to “build the marmoreal foundation for this nation.”
A tribute to National Artist Edith Tiempo followed. It was a short poetry reading moderated by a certified Tiempo baby, the feminist poet Marjorie Evasco. Poets who have attended the Dumaguete National Writers’ Workshop where “Mom Edith” is the reigning queen, read their poems as tribute to sole woman National Artist for Literature: Merlie Alunan, Dinah Roma and Ronald Baytan. Poet and critic Gemino Abad, who claimed he was “Mom Edith’s secret lover,” also recited his poem from memory.
The first plenary session that morning was “Ganito Kami Noon: Writing Through the Decades.” According to the program, this is “a plenary discussion to set the tone for all other panel discussions. A representative each from the 1950s (Elmer Ordoñez), 1960s (National Artist Virgilio Almario, aka Rio Alma), 1970s (Jose Pete Lacaba), 1980s (Marjorie Evasco), and 1990s (Angelo “Sarge” Lacuesta) can talk about the conditions of writing and publishing in their eras and how things have changed, or maybe not. And where do we go from here?” The discussion was lively and informative. Every time F. Sionil Jose would shout from his seat in the audience in reaction to what Ordoñez have just said amused everyone in the hall. But alas, as a writer from the Visayas, I noticed that the panelists, except for Evasco, only talked about writers in Metro Manila and writings in English and Tagalog. When you are an international delegate (Yes, there were two “international” visiting writers), you might get the idea that from the 1950s to the present, there is no literatures outside Metro Manila and in the vernaculars. What happened to the vigorous writings in the Ilocos, Iloilo and Cebu, to mention only three?
The literary sessions
There were so many parallel sessions that started in the afternoon of day one.
The first session that I attended was called “The Creative Writing Classroom,” which is about the teaching of creative writing for the teachers — the challenges, strategies, approaches, tips and tricks in the creative writing classroom. The panel was headed by the multi-awarded creative nonfiction writer who is my idol, Christina Pantoja-Hidalgo. She posed some questions like: “Is creative writing teachable? How much reading by your students can you assume before you teach creative writing? Will you insist that your students will write in a particular way?”
De Ungria shared that he would lead his students to develop a “sense of self and sense of place.” He would admonish his students to “find your language. Find out what do you want to say.” He also insisted that “writing should be made fun.” De La Salle University professor and gay poet Ronald Baytan shared to the group that he would “help students develop creative and critical eye.” He also added, “I’m happy when my students leave my class loving literature more.”
In the session “Text and Context” that was held at the Ateneo de Manila University during the second day, there was a lively discourse on “the encounter between art and politics, writing and ideology, or aesthetics and social engagement, has been a significant consideration in countries like the Philippines as it has been said to make for bad writing and good politics/bad politics and good writing. Thus the binary categories have been considered mutually exclusive practices by some writers, but deemed mutually constitutive commitments by writers.” Whew! The panel was moderated by “Diaspora” studies scholar and theorist Oscar Campomanes. National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera was supposed to be in the panel but he was absent.
Leading Filipino critic and playwright Isagani R. Cruz shared to the group his simple creative process of writing his plays. First, he would write his play thinking only of himself and aware of the formalistic elements. He would please himself first. And second, during revision, he would think of the readers/audience. After all, he said, people will pay to watch his play. So what would his audience get in exchange for their money and time? This is where politics enter his works. Young and prolific critic Rolando Tolentino averred that whatever one writes, it is contributing to the field called Philippine studies and said, “Anumang texto ay may sumpa na makilahok sa larangang politikang sosyal.” (Whatever text is doomed to join social politics) He insisted that whoever engages in Philippine studies must have “a certain kind of advocacy,” and this advocacy must be towards “social transformation.” The great Ladlad poet Danton Remoto, who was in his barong Tagalog (not pink so I was disappointed) for he was fresh (Can really something fresh come from that dark palace?) from a Malacañang function, flamingly announced to the group that he has also written political poems but these were ignored by readers and critics for he was already branded as a “gay poet,” a brand he doesn’t really mind as long as it would gather votes for his (ours, actually) Ladlad party list in the next election. He also hinted that he may run as an opposition senatorial candidate come 2010 elections. So his politics might be really literal than literary. Young Tagalog poet and novelist Edgar Samar said that writing is giving importance and meaning to his own milieu. Campomanes had the last word. The problem with Philippine studies, he noticed, is that it is preoccupied with binaries and had forgotten to investigate the “specificity of artistic production.”
In the session “Lingo ng Wika” at the Cubao Expo during day three, in which I was a member of the panel, Jason Paul Laxamana of Pampanga said that they promote and preserve Pampangan contemporary literature by making independent films in the language and composing original Pampangan rock music. Their being near the National Capital Region is a problem for it diluted their culture. Voltaire Oyzon of Leyte was almost up in arms asking the question why there is a distinction between national and regional writing. That if you write in Waray, as in his case, your writings will be branded as “regional” while if you are in Manila your writing will be called “national.” I told him it is not really a problem. It has to do with our attitude as writers. I am proud as a writer for I am a certified Leoncio Deriada baby (and not to mention I was adopted by the great Manila poet Cirilo Bautista). So every time I write a poem in Kinaray-a under the shade of a coconut grove by the sea or in a hut in a middle of my ancestors’ rice field in Antique, it never occurred to me that I was writing something “regional.” Deep in my heart I believe that my Kinaray-a poems are a significant part of the wonderful corpus of Philippine poetry. Voltaire could do that also. After all, he is a literary son of another great poet, Merlie Alunan.
The discussion was lively when poet-mathematician from Baguio City Prescilla Macansantos raised her hand and told the group that we “regional” writers are discussing things that we are already convinced of like writing in our native languages. No one is listening to us. She suggested that we should discuss things that we would suggest to the NCCA on how to help develop or promote writings from the region. My fellow Antique writer who is a good friend, Genevieve Asenjo, seconded, and so we asked Ian Casocot, the moderator from Dumaguete City, to take down notes of our wish list. Little did I know that I would be forced later to present this wish list (which was potentially controversial) to the plenary.
The last session that I attended, and where I was again a panelist, was “Unscripted.” It is where “playwrights, screenwriters and writers in general discuss the difficulties of writing for the stage and screen — from the issue (or non-issue) of language and the challenges of the craft, to the long road to production and the burden of having to win the audience.”
Jun Lana was supposed to be the lead panelist but did not show up. The organizers forced Steven Patrick Fernandez to moderate the discussion. We (together with another fellow Antiqueño writer who is also a dear friend, Glenn Sevilla Mas, and Jhoanna “Joy” Cruz whom I met in De La Salle many years ago, who is now teaching in UP Mindanao, and who looks like a fashion model with her beautiful clothes during Taboan.) had a wonderful time sharing our happiness and frustrations as playwrights. Glenn theatrically shared with us his horror and desperation when his American classmates at the MFA program of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC would complain that his English is different and difficult. Joy reported that there is no auditorium in Davao City and that there is zero theater production in this city in the south. She also longed for her Palanca-winning lesbian play to be staged. Well, I shared that I was only forced by my two handsome friends, Ray Defante Gibraltar and Oscar Reuben Nava, to write scripts for independent films that they directed. I’m only human and how could I resist the temptation?!
There were other sessions that I wanted to attend but was not able to because of the conflict of schedules for the sessions were held simultaneously. I would love to participate in the session titled “Filipino-ness in the Global Age,” “Publishing for the Future,” “The Poet-Critic” and many others.
Feminist poet Aida Santos sounded exasperated during the session “Text and Context.” She deplored the absence of women in the discussion. “Lalaki lang ba ang puwedeng magsalita?” (Are men the only ones allowed to speak?) she asked to no one in particular. “Gender is also a context,” she added. She had a point. All the panelists in this session were male. Oh well, Danton Remoto was there but still he is genitally male.
When you think of it, Edith Tiempo’s being the sole woman National Artist is not something to celebrate. It is in fact symptomatic of patriarchy in Philippine literature.
Marjorie Evasco had noted this undertone of male-domination and Manila-centrism during day one in the plenary session. She was the only woman in the panel of macho Manila writers. That is why she started her little speech saying to the effect that she would be speaking from a perspective that is not phallocentric and Manila-centric. Evasco may be based in Metro Manila for a long time now teaching literature at the De La Salle University in Manila and is writing in English (but lately branched out into writing in Cebuano), she cannot be accused of belonging to the “imperial center” for her poetry is very Visayan in its sensibilities. This is the reason why I adore her poems. She hails from Maribojoc, Bohol, and studied creative writing under the Tiempos at the Silliman University in Dumaguete City.
During the second day at the Ateneo, there were almost violent reactions to the presentation made by Benilda Santos, another poet whom I admire tremendously, titled “A Concise History of 150 Years of Ateneo Writing.” The history and the writers presented were only of the Ateneo de Manila University, specifically those who contributed to the more than half-a-century literary journal Heights. Writers from the other Ateneo campuses, especially in Davao City, were not mentioned. In fairness, Ma’am Beni apologized for the incompleteness of the history that she presented and promised that this experience taught them to reach out to other Ateneo campuses with their creative writing activities in Quezon City.
I noticed that the “History of Ateneo Writing” included only writers in English and Tagalog who were mostly Manila-based. Alice Tan Gonzales, who was sitting beside me that morning in Ateneo’s immaculate Leong Hall Auditorium, is also an Atenean and is writing excellent short stories in Hiligaynon. She got her master’s degree in literature from there.
Well, the most obvious symptom of Manila-centrism in Philippine literature is that all the National Artists for Literature, except for Edith Tiempo, are from Metro Manila or have spent most of their writing life in that political center of the country.
The last plenary session in the gypsy-like ambiance of Cubao Expo was called “Dear NCCA.” Ricky de Ungria posed the question: “What can the NCCA do for younger or emerging writer?” This session hopes to come up with a wish list for the NCCA, covering specific measures of support for the Filipino writers. Casocot pleaded exhaustion and forced me to present to the body the wish list made by “Lingo ng Wika” session.
The first wish we have is for NCCA to give us writers from the regions generous funding for translating the works of our senior and junior writers and for its publications. De Ungria promised to coordinate with the Committee on Translation for this and said that there are grants for publications of books by the vernacular writers.
Our second wish is to hold the future Taboans in the key cities outside Metro Manila such as Vigan, Naga, Iloilo, Cebu, Davao and General Santos City. De Ungria explained that the reason why Taboan was held in Metro Manila is the limited funding. It will be expensive to bring writers to the northern or southern part of the Philippines. My answer to that is increasing the budget. What is another million pesos? The government is just wasting money on ridiculous scandals like the fertilizer scam and the Euro generals junket, to mention only two. I think Cebu or Iloilo is central enough for transportation logistics.
And third, although I was quite fearful to say this in the plenary, is to “educate Manila writers,” well, educate in the sense that Manila writers should read us writers from the region. After all, we are the majority. My fellow West Visayan writers Genevieve Asenjo, John Barrios and Alice Tan Gonzales would aver that we are reading Manila writers. It is just fair for Manila writers to read us also so that when they organize things in Metro Manila like the Taboan, the selection of the topics and panelists for the various sessions will be more representative and no sectors will feel marginalized.
In fairness to Manila writers, I was not assassinated in Cubao Expo that evening when I was enjoying a can of San Mig Light, and the sound and sight of Paolo Santos singing with his guitar. I have to admit that this lanky singer looked sexy in person.
A call for unity
Manila-centrism, as well as phallocentrism, in Philippine literary politics will, I think, stay for quite sometime. But the gathering of writers like Taboan will surely, little by little, smash this imbalance and injustice. The NCCA literary committee is bent on making Taboan an annual event, and this augurs well for the future of the real Philippine literature wherein the dichotomy of Manila/outside Manila or the center/the peripheries or city/province, and the man/woman sexual politics is greatly diminished.
What the first Taboan achieved is to gather significant number of Filipino writers to talk about and to barter their writings and thoughts, to share their bag of tricks as wordsmith-magicians. In spite of the age, language, aesthetic and ideological differences, indeed it was possible for them to gather in one place and be a willing listener to each others’ concerns. This I think is a great step towards the formation a strong and vibrant Philippine literature.
Filipino writers need to unite. We need to unite in order to help build the Filipino nation. It is always good to go back to what F. Sionil Jose said in his keynote address: “All of us know that our country does not realize how important literature is or the arts for that matter. We know that we will never earn enough with our writing and we will be lucky if our families understand this for our greatest support comes from our loved ones. But to write as best and as honestly as we can and we will do this not because we are masochists or because a munificent bonus awaits us in the afterlife. We must bear this duty, endure it, if we are to be true not just to the vocation we have chosen but to this land which sustains us, which gave us life and reason to be.”
Amen! Amen! Manong Frankie.
I feel so blessed to have been invited to participate in the festive Taboan 2009 which was well-organized. Kudos to the NCCA’s Committee on Literary Arts especially to its chair Ricky de Ungria. Bravo to Sarge Lacuesta and April Yap, and their staff, who coordinated the event. (I love Taboan’s logo! Writing quills forming a circle invoking the color, beauty and life, and the marapait, the native sunflower.) Writing is such a lonely occupation and to be with your kindred spirits even just for three days is a taste of heaven. I am now eagerly looking forward to Taboan 2010.
John Iremil E. Teodoro is a Palanca award-winning writer based in San Jose de Buenavista, Antique, and Iloilo City. He is an author of six poetry books mostly in Kinaray-a. His collection of essays Pagmumuni-muni at Pagtatalak ng Sirenang Nagpapanggap na Prinsesa won the 2007 National Book Award for essay/creative non-fiction from the Manila Critics Circle and the National Book Development Board. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the De La Salle University.