Wednesday, April 09, 2003

native tune

"Moments there are I strain, but futile ever,/
To flute my feelings through some native Tune"

I identify with Trinidad Tarrosa Subido's sentiment above.

Writing in Tagalog (or formally, Filipino) is truly a challenge for me, at times frustrating, at times depressing.

Frustrating because I should be able to do it, but my meagre vocabulary prevents me from writing exactly what I would write; my style, voice and cadence are lost in the necessary translation from my mind's English construction to Tagalog.

Depressing because somehow it reflects badly on me as a construct/product of my time and place: a Filipino who cannot write in his own tongue, but who instead is agile and proficient in the language whose propagation was an instrument of America's colonial control.

I need to rebel against decades of conditioning. Growing up, English was considered to be the only language worth learning because of its obvious and implied advantages. My parents (and grandparents) believed that it was the language of opportunity, that it would be my passport to the elite society that dominated the realms of art and business, that it would open doors and secure a favorable destiny.

Did English do all that for me? In a word, yes. I cannot deny all the advantages English has given me, from securing positions in competitive scenarios, to expressing myself through writing, to speaking in public. It facilitated communication with foreigners in my stint abroad, allowing me to present my business to non-Filipinos. It also opened a million doors to new worlds of thought via a thousand thousand books, films and other literary materials. As for a "favorable destiny", it immediately positions me notches above the competition - English plus my head knowledge plus my persona gives me an edge.

So what am I angsting about?

I cannot write a short story in Tagalog. I can, in English.

I cannot write a play in Tagalog. I can, in English.

I cannot write in Tagalog. I am trapped by English.

Or am I? Should I feel...mildly guilty and more than slightly unpatriotic?

Some years ago, as a young writer, I was invited to be one of the select few to participate in the Silliman University's Writers' Workshop, a haven of New Criticism headed by the Tiempos, highly respected gods of Philippine letters. I enjoyed my time there, among my fellow writers in English, the language you wrote in wasn't the point. Almost everyone who attended Silliman has gone on to publish books, win every conceivable award in the Philippines, and continue to write in English. And they are as nationalistic as the native language writers.

When their advocacy of American New Criticism was dismissed as irrelevant and their persistent use of English taunted as colonial, National Artist Edith Tiempo said that the use of English was "mostly an accident of history. We were born into this time. I imagine that had we continued under Spanish colonial rule, we would all be speaking and writing in Spanish to the present day. I think it is a happy accident because English happens to be the lingua franca all over the world now, and so whatever we Filipinos write has the chance to be read and understood elsewhere.... But English is our language too. It fell on us and I think one of the marks of intelligence in the organic world is the ability to adjust. So it's not our language but it came to us and it is a matter of pride that we are able to handle something that is not naturally ours."

But Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, in her paper "Literature in English by Filipino Women", tells that the usefulness of English as a language "more widely understood" proved an inadequate argument against the increasingly vocal-some would say virulent-attacks that put the Tiempos and all other writers of Philippine literature in English on the defensive. Writers were forced to ask themselves difficult questions: For whom were they in fact writing? Was it primarily for a foreign audience? Was it merely for one another? Or was it for the Filipino people in general? As Filipino writers, did they not have the moral responsibility to address national issues in their stories and poems and plays and to make these accessible to the overwhelmingly larger group of Filipinos whose language was not English?

Difficult questions.

Do they matter? Yes, even if they are difficult to answer, hard to consider, depressing to sort out. Because as writers we must face such questions.

There is the bilingual mode, of course; writing in both languages, allowing the story to form in whichever tongue and engaging the hand in automatic writing.

Being able to write primarily in English has given me many advantages yes, most important of these being the capacity to write and express thought. But somehow, I feel diminished, and the soil I step on seems blurry, like underdeveloped film.

Hindi ko masabi sayo kung gaanong kabigat ang pakiramdam ko. Para bang gusto kong pumikit nalang kaysa mapaiyak dahil wala akong magawa. Wala akong makitang aninag sa salamin.

I cannot explain it to you - it is not a matter of words escaping me; I simply do not have the vocabulary. I do not have a dictionary or thesaurus in my head.

I wish I could write in Tagalog. Even just a little.

"Ah, could I speak the language of my blood/
I, too, would free the poetry in me.... "

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