Thursday, July 12, 2007

required reading: new tales for old

Nerisa Guevara posts Christina Hidalgo's new essay on her blog, Bodies of Water.

Jing's essay is mindblowing, educational and more than worth your while. Two of the six stories discussed come from the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies: Cyan Abad-Jugo's "Jan's Door" is from volume 1; Nikki's "Bearing Fruit" from volume 2. Hurray for Spec Fic!

Jing sent me an earlier draft in course of email correspondence with her, and I was floored. I look forward to expading my appreciation and understanding of the tale more.

Read the complete essay here.

New Tales for Old
by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo

She wraps the cloth around
Her eyes to see.
The finer the weave
The more powerful is she.


- Marjorie M. Evasco, “Mandarawak”

I. Introduction

Nick Joaquin’s first book, Prose and Poems was published in 1952 and Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker was published in 1962. Both collections contain stories which today seem readily recognizable as modern tales. But for the longest time, “May Day Eve” and “Summer Solstice” were taught in classrooms as realist stories, and “The Legend of the Dying Wanton” was usually ignored. Similarly, Cordero-Fernando’s “The Level of Each Day’s Need” was passed over by anthologists, who clearly felt she was better represented by “Hunger” and “People in the War.”[1]

For some time no other mainstream writer seemed interested in writing tales. But today, among younger writers there is a growing interest in what is referred to as “speculative fiction.” The term covers a wide range of genres which speculate about worlds different from the one we regard as “real”: science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, gothic fiction, supernatural fiction, futurist fiction, alternate history, magical/marvelous realism.[2]

My own interest is not in the entire field of speculative fiction but only in the modern tale, which is descended from the literary fairy tale and the philosophical tale; and, in particular, in modern tales by Filipino women who write in English. This essay is part of a longer study, the first part of which is on Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s tales, and has already been published. (See Hidalgo 2006, 45-76.)

Without losing sight of Maria Nikolajeva’s warning that “drawing clear-cut borders between different types of literature associated with fantasy is not only impossible but also not always necessary” (2003,138), I find it useful to refer to her categories—myth, the traditional fairy tale, modern fantasy and postmodern fantasy—because using the terms interchangeably sometimes leads to confusion.

So, first, there is myth,[3] which predates the traditional fairy tale, which, in turn, predates fantasy. Nikolajeva reminds us that the fairy tale and modern fantasy differ, first of all, in their origins. “Fairy tales have their roots in archaic society and archaic thought, thus immediately succeeding myths.” But “literary fairy tales and fantasy are definitely products of modern times.” They owe their origins mostly to the Romantic Movement in Europe, with its interest in folk tradition and its rejection of the rationalism of the previous century. (138-139)[4]

For a long time, the fairy tale was associated with the nursery. According to Ursula Le Guinn, books written specifically for children began to emerge in the mid-19th century. Before that, fiction was dominated by the realistic novel.


Romance and satire were acceptable to it, but overt fantasy was not. So, for a while, fantasy found a refuge in children’s books. There it flourished so brilliantly that people began to perceive imaginative fiction as being “for children.” (2006)
In fact, fantasy may well be the only type of fiction which crosses age-lines and bridges generations. “As the grip of realism weakened, the fantastic element began returning into adult fiction by various routes,” Le Guinn adds. These routes include magical realism and the philosophical tale. This might be the explanation for our own writers’ indifference—it wasn’t considered “serious literature,” until very recently.

Modern fantasy has borrowed many elements from the traditional fairy tale—its cast of characters, the quest plot, magical objects like wands and invisibility mantles and potions. But there are important differences, the figure of the main character, for instance. While the fairy-tale hero is heroic, the fantasy protagonist “often lacks heroic features, can be scared and even reluctant to perform the task, and can sometimes fail.” (Niklolajeva 140)

Another difference lies “in the way fairy tales and fantasy construct their spatiotemporal relations or what Bakhtin calls the “chronotope.”[5] (Bakhtin 1981,85) Nikolajeva observes that both myth and fairy tale take place in a magical world detached from our own both in space and in time. Tolkien’s name for it is the “Secondary World.” (Tolkien 1975, 40) Whereas the characters in myth and fairy tale “appear and act within the magical chronotope,” in fantasy, “the characters are temporarily displaced from modern linear time—chronos—into mythical, archaic, cyclical time—kairos—and return to linearity at the end of the novel.” They are either transported from the initial realist setting into another realm, or they encounter something from another realm in the “real” one. (Nikolajeva 141)

Nikolajeva also refers to Tzvetan Todorov’s famous description of the fantastic as the “hesitation” between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” (Todorov 1973, 25) This hesitation at the confrontation with the supernatural is shared by character and reader. “At the story’s end,” Todorov says, “the reader makes a decision, even if the character does not; he opts for one solution or the other and thereby emerges from the fantastic.” [6] (41)

Such a decision is not necessary in postmodern fantasy which is characterized by heterotopia (a multitude of discordant universes), intersubjectivity (which presupposes the absence of a single fixed subject in a literary text, instead suggesting that the complex “subject” of a narrative has to be assembled by the reader from several individual consciousnesses), and heteroglossia (an interplay of different voices and perspectives within a narrative). (Nikolajeva 148-149) In postmodern fantasy, we face uncertainty, indeterminacy, ambiguity—typical features of postmodern literature.

“Suspension of disbelief” is another area where the modes or genres differ. In myth “the bearers of myth are positioned within its time/space” and the reader is expected to accept the events narrated as true. Myth is based on belief. “The mythic hero’s deeds are essential for the survival of his society.” (153) Examples from our own literature would be the myths recorded by Damiana Eugenio. (1993) On the other hand, the reader or listener of a fairy tale is “detached.” The tasks of the traditional fairy tale hero are impossible for ordinary human beings. The action is symbolic or allegorical and happens in a “detached timespace.” Readers are not expected to believe in the story…” (Nikolajeva 153) Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s Bad Kings (2006), for instance, is in this mode.

In fantasy, the protagonist is an ordinary human being, [7] and there are two possible ways of interpreting the supernatural occurrences. These “can be accepted as ‘real,’ having actually taken place, which means that the reader accepts magic as a part of the world created by the author.” Or, they can be rationalized, explained away, as dreams, visions, hallucinations, even psychological disturbances.[8] Therefore, “the most profound difference between fantasy and fairy tales is… the position of the reader/listener toward what is narrated.” (emphasis mine) (Nikolajeva 152)

Again, the situation in postmodern fantasy is more complicated. For postmodern characters, the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred. Following the developments in natural science and quantum physics, fantasy literature accepts parallel worlds as equally real. It accepts more than one reality and more than one truth. (154)

Philippine folk literature does not seem to have an equivalent term for “fairy tale.” Damiana Eugenio does use the word “fairy” in describing the engkantadas: “In these legends she is variously described as ‘a lovely woman, more goddess than mortal,’ or as ‘a fairy’ with ‘a beauty that surpassed that of any other woman they had ever seen.’” (2002, xxxiii) She also uses the term “fairyland” when referring to the realm to which engkantadas take their human lovers to live in. (xxxv) But the folk material in her exhaustive Philippine Folk Literature Series does not include the category “fairy tale.”[9]

According to Reinerio Alba, the first efforts to introduce schoolchildren to Philippine folk material in literature in English are contained in the Philippine Readers series prepared by Camilo Osias in the 1930s. In the 50s, writers like Manuel and Lyd Arguilla, Maximo Ramos, and I.V. Mallari tried their hand at retelling folktales. And in the 60s, PAMANA published 5 books for young adults, some of which were inspired by folk tales, among them, Makisig by Gemma Cruz Araneta. (Alba 2003) Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s “Horgle and the King’s Soup,” a fairy tale, was also published by PAMANA in 1965.[10]

On the other hand, Nick Joaquin’s “May Day Eve,” a literary tale for adults was published in 1947; his other tales followed soon after. And, as mentioned earlier, Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s early tales were published before 1962. So fantasy (in English) in the Philippines seems to have taken a different route from the route it took in Europe, making its appearance at about the same time in literature for children and literature for adults. Some later examples of literary tales are: “The Hill of Samuel” by Alfred A. Yuson (1968), “The Bird” by Tita Lacambra-Ayala (1984), and Leoncio P. Deriada’s Night Mares and Other Stories of Fantasy and Horror (1988).

For this essay, I reread most of the personal collections of short fiction in English published by women in the last two decades; women’s short fiction included in general anthologies; and women’s tales included in the few published fantasy anthologies. I also read some unpublished tales.[11] Finally, I looked for criticism on the tale in Philippine fiction in English, but here, to my regret, I drew a blank.

My preliminary findings seem to show that, though the body of tales being produced today remains small, the tales themselves are extraordinarily varied. On the other hand, hardly any critical attention is being paid to them.

In the West, the writing of new tales and rewriting of old tales has been part of the feminist project for some time, and a considerable body of scholarship in the area now exists.[12] Moreover, attention is no longer limited to European and English tales. For example, Fiona Mackintosh has written on the engagement of Argentinian women writers with the fairy tale. (Cited in Mortensen 2006) Cristina Bacchilega has studied the work of the Caribbean-Canadian writer of fantasy, Nalo Hopkinson. (2006)

To my knowledge, this is not happening in the Philippines. My essay is a modest step toward filling that gap.

For this short study, I have selected six tales which may be regarded as modern wonder tales, and which I will discuss in pairs: “Rosa” by Nerisa del Carmen Guevara and “Orange” by Natasha Gamalinda; “A Bedtime Art Story” by Joy Dayrit and “Jan’s Door” by Cyan Abad Jugo; and “Bearing Fruit” by Nikki Alfar and “A Song in the Wind” by Maria Elena Paterno. Without claiming that there are exact parallelism in these pairings, I think the similarities in each case are striking.

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