June 2007
Literature and Literacy

Speaking in tongues

THE NATIONAL language of the Philippines is no longer Pilipino but Filipino. And as it evolves with its modern alphabet, Philippine literature is expected to develop along with it. But the latter is a task that could be difficult to accomplish especially with such government rulings as Executive Order 210 that has once more made English the medium of instruction in our schools, and the second language to be taught in the first-level system.

This is, after all, a country with more than a hundred languages, a fact that has spawned a rich collection of regional writing. Yet while there have been moves to “mainstream” what National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera has described as “hitherto marginalized writing,” vernacular literature has remained trapped in the regions, unable to go beyond linguistic boundaries. One could say it has been in search of a vehicle that could help it move forward. Now, however, the vehicle most likely to do that has been deprived of fuel.

No one doubts that vernacular literature is vital to our cultural identity. Herminio Beltran Jr., author of Lemlunay: Mga Tula sa Tatlong Wika and Bayambang (Tula, Daniw, Poems) and chief of the Literary Arts Division of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), says that it was through vernacular literature that he “came to know how it is to be Ilocano or Filipino.” Part of the group that took over the CCP in the ‘80s, he adds, “Compared to English or any other foreign language or literature to which I was exposed early enough in school, it is the mirror or vehicle of my own experiences, dreams, aspirations, hatred, longings.”

For sure there have been efforts to think nationally by acting regionally. There has been Liwayway Publications, for instance, which has popularized literary works in Tagalog through its magazine, Liwayway, as well as those in Iluko through Bannawag, in Cebuano through Bisaya, and in Ilonggo through Hiligaynon. According to its former circulation editor Juan S.P. Hidalgo, who retired from Liwayway as associate editor, Liwayway sold 200,000 copies a week during its “Golden Age” in the 1930s; Bannawag did 50,000 copies, Bisaya 80,000 copies, and Hiligaynon 40,000 copies.

But so long as our country lacks the vision of Malaysia’s Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature), vernacular literature may have a hard time developing a national audience. For years now, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka has been translating even world classics into Bahasa Malaysia, as if to say, “Hey, we have words for your words.”

Without a similar initiative, we may be bound to follow the circuitous route taken by artist and avid Liwayway reader Frank Rivera in appreciating indigenous artforms. A Laguna native, Rivera was once accused of being a “cultural colonizer” because he was among those who brought theatre to the grassroots in the ‘70s. But that was before he realized that there were more exciting artforms in the regions awaiting rediscovery — leading him to found Sining Kambayoka, which recently won the Gawad CCP para sa Sining Pangtanghalan for popularizing its folk theater format adapted from the Maranao song-and-dance form, the bayok.

Now one of the project directors of the Kapitbisig Laban sa Kahirapan (KALAHI), Rivera says, “Regional literature, including theater, is the base of almost everything we are as a people, that makes our works today more substantial than many works of art that are not based on past experiences.”

REGIONAL WRITERS, of course, haven’t exactly been waiting for outsiders to appreciate them. Confident in the value and beauty of their work, they have shared poems, essays, and fiction with their respective peoples for generations. Recently, regional writing has even gone online to reach out to those who have joined the great Filipino diaspora. Bicolanos publish online via its oragonrepublic.com. Dalityapi Unpoemed from Pangasinan and Iluko.Com from the North are both active and proactive in their quest for literary rennaisance. Aklanon Literature and Mindanao Creative Writers Group Inc. likewise come alive in cyberspace, especially now that there is panitikan.com.ph, which is the portal to Philippine literatures.

Writing in the vernacular helps preserve local languages, as well as enriches literature and culture. Yet while regional writing does not need appreciation from outsiders to be relevant, it can only benefit from being presented in a national context, because then it becomes part of a greater story that can be enjoyed by more people.

Unfortunately, this has happened only rarely. Indeed, folios like Jose Bragado and Benjamin Pascual’s Pamulinawen: Dandaniw 1949-1975 (1976), critiques like Evangelina Hilario Lacson’s Kapampangan Writing: A Selected Compendium and Critique (1984), and anthologies like Victor Sugbo’s Tinipigan: An Anthology of Waray Literature (1995) and Illumined Terrain: The Sites and Dimensions of Philippine Literature (1998) or Efren R. Abueg’s Sa Bagwis ng Sining: Mga Nangaunang Manunulat ng Cavite (2005) are in dire need of successors. So is Lumbera’s Filipinos Writing: Philippine Literature from the Regions (2001).

In Sansiglong Mahigit Ng Makabagong Tula Sa Filipinas (2006), as well as in its twin publication Pag-unawa sa Ating Pagtula: Pagsusuri at Kasaysayan ng Panulaang Filipino (2006), the pride that is national is ever present. Their common author and editor, National Artist Virgilio Almario, selected some of the best poems in Bikol, Binisaya, Espanyol, Iluko, English, Filipino, and Kapampangan from 1900 up to the present, and provided translations into the national language. Today, though, the national language itself now seems to be at risk of being overtaken by a foreign tongue.

The irony of it all is that the education department has mandated the use of the vernacular as a medium of instruction in mathematics in Grades 1 and 2 in public elementary schools this coming schoolyear. Back in 1950, then Iloilo schools division superintendent Jose Aguilar had discovered that children should be taught in their native tongue so they could learn as much as they could before they complete their elementary education. Another way of explaining what Aguilar learned and rallied for, perhaps, is that language empowerment is people empowerment.

And it’s not as if there has been no effort to push the national language in schools since then. In 2000, then education secretary Brother Andrew Gonzalez, FSC issued Memorandum No. 202 to train trainors for the Special Program in the Arts or SPA that was meant for select public high schools. In 2004, the Department of Education extended SPA to other high schools interested in having creative writing classes in Filipino for their students.

The SPA training workshops have since been reaping praises from the teacher-participants who have echoed the lessons to their students. Carmelita Cabaluna, a school paper adviser from Zamboanga City, says she herself learned how to write poems and stories in Filipino because of SPA. “What was amazing,” she continues, “was the fact that I am a Chavacana. I became a role model for writing in Filipino. Earlier this year, modesty aside, my student won in the secondary schools press conference. And she said she owed it to me.”

THE COMMISSION on Higher Education (CHED) also has policies and standards that are supportive of the national language and local literature. In addition, it regularly recognizes college and universities with great language and literature programs by awarding these with titles such as Center for Excellence and Center for Development.

Only a few schools, however, offer courses like Panitikang Kordilyera, which is among the electives for students enrolled in the language and literature program at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Baguio. UP Diliman’s Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan sa Pilipinas is also the only place where one can enroll in a two-year course or scholarship in creative writing in Filipino (leading to a sertipiko sa malikhaing pagsulat or certificate in creative writing).

For writers from the regions, therefore, workshops have been their saviour.

There are at least three national workshops recognized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). (“National” can only be used by workshops if they are open to applicants from all over the country, if they have a good track record, and if they are innovative.) The oldest and most well-known is what is now called the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop. Begun in 1962 by the late great Edilberto Tiempo and his wife, National Artist Edith Tiempo, it used to be known as the Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

Another is the UP National Writers Workshop, which was founded in 1965 in Baguio City and takes place during summer and semestral break in the regions. There is also the Iligan National Writers Workshop at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology that is held at the same time as its Literature Teachers Conference every April.

But regional writers have benefited more from smaller workshops that have stimulated creative endeavors in the vernacular. Among these is UP Tacloban’s Panagsugat All-Visayas Workshop for writers in the Visayan languages, as well as in Filipino and English. In Mindanao, there is the Davao Writers Guild and the Ateneo de Zamboanga’s Western Mindanao Writers Workshop.

Nearer to “imperial Manila” but helping keep regional identities intact and healthy are a workshop that has been nurturing young Kapampangan writers sponsored by UP Clark and other schools in Angeles City and the Pangatnig Creative Writing Workshop at UP Los Baños. In the National Capital Region itself is Almario’s Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA) Poetry Clinic, now 22 years old and still going strong.

The Gunglo dagiti Mannurat nga Ilokano iti Filipinas or GUMIL Filipinas, one of the most powerful writers groups in the country and one of the few that have chapters abroad, also conducts a workshop during its annual convention. And last April, Dean Elizabeth Calinawagan and her staff at UP Baguio’s College of Arts and Communications organized the first UP Baguio-NCCA Cordillera Creative Writing Workshop that produced gems such as poetry in Ibaloi by award-winning Melvin Magsanoc:

Shakilan Three-stone stove
Tedon kaapo-an ja imantotokmang
Tedon abada ja kaon pasapasan,
Tedon imengisikasikal ni atong,
Tedon kaonbiya-biyag ni karakdan.

Tedo ira, tetedo bengat ira!

Three elders having their talks
Three shoulders carrying loads
Three strong that bear the heat
Three that feed the many.

They are three, they are only three!

Eventually, Calinawagan plans to “localize” workshops in the various Cordillera provinces so that the skills of those writing in Kalinga and Bontoc in the Mountain Province; Ifugao; Tinggian and Adasen in Abra; and Pangasinense could be honed. There could even be workshops, she says, in other languages in Region II such as Ibanag, Itawis, Gaddang, Yogad, Ilongot, and Ivatan.

CONTESTS THAT have been open to regional writing, as well as grants especially for works in the vernacular, have also helped strengthen both local languages and literatures.

The Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas deems it necessary to include writers from the regions as recipients of its annual lifetime achievement award known as Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas.

A decade ago, the prestigious Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature added three new divisions for its short story contest: Iluko, Cebuano, and Hiligaynon. In 2000, the NCCA awarded the Gawad Emmanuel Lacaba to three new writers: Clesencio Rambaud, who writes in Iluko; Alain Russ Dimzon, in Hiligaynon; and Adonis G. Durado, in Cebuano. Last year, the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award went to Bicolano poet Kristian Cordero for his book Mga Tulang Tulala: Piling Tula sa Filipino, Bicol, at Rinconada.

These days, regional writers are once more readying their pens to vie for the NCCA Writers’ Prize, a biennial grant to six writers in different genres. This year, among the outstanding writers the NCCA is looking for is someone who will submit a promising first 50 pages of a novel in Cebuano, as well as a poet writing in Bicolano, and a playwright with a drama in any of the Panay languages. Next year, Gawad CCP para sa Panitikan will be revived.

Earlier, the UP Likhaan or Institute of Creative Writing, in cooperation with the NCCA, and other conduits had stepped in with its Textanaga and Dalitext that harvested 10,000 tanaga and 30,000 dalit respectively in 2003. Textanaga was the first text-a-poem contest in the world. By 2004, NCCA’s Dionatext had garnered 40,000 diona and its Textsawikain the next year attracted 50,000 sawikain, including submissions from Filipinos in Qatar, Kuwait, Riyadh, Bahrain, and Hong Kong. There were Textigmo in Cebuano and Textpaktakon in Hiligaynon, too.

All these are prehispanic or indigenous literary forms unique to the Philippines. Tanaga is a quatrain of seven syllables. Dalit is a four-liner with eight syllables each. Diona is a tercet with seven syllables each. Sawikain is popularly known as proverb or salawikain. Tigmo and paktakon are riddles in Cebuano ang Hiligaynon respectively. They have survived in the age of SMS (short messaging service), which has now become a partner in their creation and propagation.

If anyone is guilty of not keeping up with the times, it is Malacañang with its E.O. 210 that strengthens the use of English at the expense of Filipino.

It may help the Palace to listen to Renato Santillan, a Dagupan City National High School teacher who last year won second place in an essay-writing contest sponsored by the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF). Said Santillan: “I’m an Ilocano in Pangasinan. And winning an award for writing in Filipino inspires my students and co-teachers. Now I’m planning to organize a writers’ group in our province together with Mrs. Salvacion Torres of the Manaoag National High School, who in SPA gained confidence in writing in Pangasinense and in facing the truth about the murder of her father.”

A national language is the natural bridge that will allow regional writings to reach the rest of the Philippines. It is the perfect unifying element for what the NCCA has called the “development of a pluralistic culture.”

When our seeming Babel of local literatures is revealed to be a repository of beauty to even those outside of literary circles, we may realize that artforms that are indigenous to our peoples are more important to us as a nation than even the most popular ones from the West. That these are more vital to us as a people — and surely more relevant than this essay written for readers in English.

V.E. Carmelo D. Nadera Jr. is the director of the University of the Philippines Likhaan: Institute of Creative Writing and Associate Professor in U.P. College of Arts and Letters, secretary general of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL), Southern Luzon representative of the NCCA Committee on Literary Arts, and member of the Commission on Higher Education’s Technical Panel on Literature. Nadera received the South East Asian Write Award in Bangkok, Thailand in 2006.