Friday, August 19, 2005

smaller and smaller circles

(I wanted to write about Felisa Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles” but something took over and I ended up with this. Bear with me or skip this post completely. It’s badly constructed and rather inchoate. But also very true.)

Fifteen years ago, I encountered my first Palanca novel(ist). I was at the 1990 Palanca Awards, a dazed first-time winner, trying not to look too awestruck. That was the year that Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind won the Grand Prize for Novel in English. I promised myself that I’d pick it up when the next opportunity came. When it did, I remember my heart sinking as I leafed through her book, picking out words and scenes of events. I left with the book unpurchased, my heart torn by guilt. I didn’t buy it; hence, I didn’t read it. My reading tastes, even then, veered away from social realism, and it was the kind of book that I didn’t want to plod through. Sadly, it also consolidated what, for me, the Filipino novel was about: pessimism, melancholy, relevance, and socio-political discourse, all wrapped in the dull (but angry) colors of realism, pinoy-style (but in English – which is another guilt issue for me, as for many Filipino writers who write in English, but that’s for another day).

I’ve read a few Filipino novels in English, of course. High school and college requirements saw to that. But I found that none of them stoked the fires of my imagination, being mostly didactic, with the authors more focused on the same old messages – the plight of the poor, the divide of the social classes, hope for something better, the struggle with whatever governmental regime but with special emphasis on martial law and the third quarter storm and the horrors of existence under that rule, freedom for one and all, justice for the slain and the farmers and women and ethnic groups, reverence for the past, reverence for tradition, reverence for our culture, nationalist tenets, and politics, politics, and more politics - than the story, characters or the form. These are all valid things and experiences to write about and are definitely part of the Filipino experience, but they are also not something I’d line up in a bookstore for and kill to read.

I’ve long struggled with my guilt. I love to read. I read a lot of novels of various types, from literary novels to shit lit, from all over the world, but didn’t care much about the output of my own countrymen. I’ve long asked why we can’t write novels that are not social realist. Must the "Great Filipino Novel" be about these things? ("Of course!" I hear the Philippine Literature teachers resound.) Where are the mysteries, the horror novels, the fantasies, the science fiction, the erotica, the genre novels, the alternative fiction? Is the only alternative the romance novel?

The (partial) answer is: in short fiction. Since the form is shorter, writers are more willing to experiment (and I also suspect that writers who are conscious of being writerly are afraid of spending so much time pounding out a novel that isn't, in some way, social realist and relevant - "You're writing what? Why waste your time on that?"). So great for the short fictionists - although social realism is also dominant there, serenely vast and unperturbed by the other types of stories that eke out a timorous existence at its edges. Despite the entrenched goliath, short fiction is where much growth will happen.

But what about the novel? Am I being fair in my assumptions or just foolishly blind? My exposure has been primarily where one is supposed to be able to buy them (i.e. bookstores, book fairs, etc.). In college, I don’t remember really taking up an intensive course on Philippine literature with an exclusive focus on the modern Filipino novel in English (which is why I am probably so ill-informed). What was written after Rizal's Noli and Fili? Who is writing? What are they writing about? Just how many Filipino novels in English are out there?

the social fantasist

Last year, Elmer A. Ordoñez observed: “Since the Zoilo Galang’s A Child of Sorrow (1921), the first Filipino novel in English, there have been a hundred novels, with only a handful of writers having at least six novels to their name: Francisco Sionil Jose, with 12 titles; Linda Ty Casper, 10 novels; Bienvenido Santos, Edilberto and Edith Tiempo, with six titles each. Another handful have at least three to four novels each: Carlos Bulosan (3), NVM Gonzalez (4), Eric Gamalinda (4), Paulino Lim Jr., (4), and Azucena Grajo Uranza (3). Nick Joaquin and Ninotckha Rosca have two each. The rest are single novelists.”

A hundred published novels in English, by Ordoñez’s estimate. Can this small number be true? And regardless of the actual count, how could I possibly be so unwilling to read any of them? Could it be that they are all by serious literary writers and that, in my heart of hearts, I’m afraid that they will all ultimately be of the sort that makes me doubt my own patriotism? Is the unspoken requirement thus: to be a “serious” writer of Philippine literature, one must kowtow to nationalism and social realism? Is it my responsibility? Is the onus mine? And if I choose to do otherwise, does it make my writing less valid, less important, less Filipino?

Early in my writing life, I rebelled. Or thought I did. I’ve been mostly a playwright and a writer of short fiction. I wanted to write speculative fiction, things I’d like to read myself. But my early fiction reveals that I was what I call a “Transformer”, a social realist in disguise. Strip away the fantastic elements and batches of my stories (The Last Mermaid Story, Spark: The Sad & Strange Tale of The Nun who Exploded, The Secret Measure) reveal my leftist leanings, which was practically a necessity for someone who studied at UP (and again, the guilt: was I was so void of sympathy for the struggle of the farmers who marched to Malacañang that I had to construct a tenuous - albeit arguably well-written - position and insinuate it in my fiction just so I could claim relevance?). Even my occasional plays betray me, some being read as allegories of struggle or being out-and-out statements about, well, outing. So am I writing the very thing I don’t want to read?

When I began to write the Hinirang cycle of magical fiction a couple of years back, I thought I could escape my guilt. But a number of these stories are indicative of the struggle against Spanish rule. So I’m a social fantasist. Or something. The mind reels.

After I found out that my novel Salamanca won the Palanca Grand Prize for Novel this year, after all the good feelings and congratulatory back patting, I was struck with the old profound sense of guilt of not having read a single Palanca novel (you might think I get struck by a profound sense of guilt a lot; I don’t, so when it happens it really big).

So I decided to rectify the situation.

on the shoulders of giants

I remembered my first encounter with Uranza’s novel and decided to find out just what the previous winning novels were and who wrote them. I discovered that apart from the best online sources (Ian Casocot’s Survey of Philippine Literature site and the Carlos Palanca Awards wiki), there were no other sources of consolidated information. Ian’s site and the wiki were incomplete (an aside: perhaps I’ll get my web team to do a site that has all the Palanca info, with a database server - I’ll see if it’s okay with Ian and the Foundation). I found out that the Novel prize in English is given every 3 years (I thought it was every 2 years) and that the category was established in 1980.

I compiled a list of the winners but I suspect that there was co-winner or two that I missed (like F. Sionil Jose – I’ll just have to pester poor Babes at the Carlos Palanca Foundation):

1981 - Wilfrido Nolledo - Sangria Tomorrow
1984 - Wilfrido Nolledo - 21 de Agosto

A back to back win by Nolledo. I put both on my must-find list. I want to see if his novels were linked and just what this great writer was concerned with. None were available at the three bookstores I went to recently.

1987 - Krip Yuson - Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café

I did read part of this before but didn’t finish it. And worse, the book was victimized in one of the Alfars' annual cullings. Gah. I owe it to Krip to get a new copy and finish it – he has always been an encouragement to me through the years. I couldn’t find it where I looked. What’s going on?

1990- Azucena Uranza - Bamboo in the Wind

I found her book and I picked it up. I felt like I was watching my past self because I did precisely the same thing I did before. I put it back. But only because I wanted to see if the others were available. I’m picking it up (mahal pala) this weekend, during our scheduled bookstore sortie.

1993 - Butch Dalisay - Killing Time in a Warm Place

It is with no small amount of embarrassment that I confess I haven’t read Butch’s novel (Nikki has). I am a fan of his short fiction though. And he is one of the few UP writers I actually look up to. So obviously, this state of affairs will change (my not having read his novel, not the being a fan part). It was shortly after this year that I vanished from the literary scene, focusing on work and real life.

1996 - Christina Pantoja Hidalgo – Recuerdo

I was not reading anything literary during this time (and definitely not writing). I wouldn’t have anything to do with the Philippine literary scene until 2003 (apart from comics, my other advocacy), so my guilt over not having a copy of Jing’s book is somewhat justified. She is also an encouragement to me (and especially to Nikki). I also had a schoolboy crush on Jing back in college. Sigh. I saw a copy and will get it. And such a lovely title.

1999 - Felisa Batacan - Smaller and Smaller Circles

This book blew my mind and was the original point of this entire post, now sadly reduced to a few sentences (intent and the final written product are always two different things). I picked it up a few days ago, to read in Tagaytay. This is a genre novel, a rarity in the Philippine letters. A detective novel about two Jesuits priests investigating a serial killing in Payatas. Deft, well-written and fluid, both Nikki and I loved it. More importantly, it showed me that the Palancas were not a bunch of old fogeys determined to steadfastly uphold the torch of social realism. There is hope.

2002 - Vincent Groyon III - The Sky Over Dimas

I first met Vince during a workshop and was pissed that he was both taller and a year younger than me. And brilliant. Since then, we’ve had sporadic communications but recently reignited our correspondence – he wrote one of the stories for the upcoming comic book Siglo: Passion that I'm editing with Vin. His book is wonderful.

And this year, there is me.

I have high hopes for Salamanca's publication, with higher hopes that it will be read - and that some guy will not accuse me of being a boring old social realist fart (I do fart, and I am older, but I am certainly not boring and as for the social realism, well, ewan) and see that the novel is about many different things.

So that’s how things are. I’ve read the most recent winning novels and so far the genre is neither as moribund nor as fixed as I thought it was. We’ll how things go as I travel back in time, but the future looks bright and open and free.

I’ll continue to write about what I want to write about, just as long as it makes me happy (this is me assuaging my trepidation about following up Salamanca with a fantasy/sci-fi/western novel set on a planet with three alien races fighting for mining rights with nary a Filipino nor melancholic Filipino sensibility within a billion parsecs).

UPDATE: After this, go and read Ian Casocot's post entitled "A Dream in Novels: Some Notes on the Reading of the Filipino Novel in English, or Ditto to Dean's Blognote".


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