Thursday, May 27, 2004

the tyranny of culture: writing as a filipino author

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a Filipino writer is the unspoken edict to be nationalistic. This is reflected in many ways - as a bias against writing in English (why use the language of the oppressor?), selection of setting (why set your story outside of the Philippines?), choice of subject matter (why write of anyone but Filipinos; why write of any place other than your country?), need for socio-political relevance (what is the value of writing that does not show injustice, inequality, suffering, poverty and the plight of the masses?), and significance (why waste time and energy on something that does not promote societal betterment?).

I'm just tired of it.

I write in English because I can express myself better. I do not buy into the argument that writing in a "foreign" language is somehow selling out. English is not foreign to me, is not foreign to millions of Filipinos. And Rizal wrote in Spanish. You do not measure nationalism by the language you speak, write or think in. It is a matter of the heart, of belief, of intellect.

I set some stories outside of the Philippines because the world and all its wonders interest me. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in setting a story in a castle in Denmark, a lagoon in India or a farm in Kansas. Choice of setting does not make an author love his country any less. Besides, there are worlds beyond the real world, created lands of make-believe that cartwheel in splendor and magic. I am citizen of the Philippines, but my allegiance is to the World - words and worlds share porous boundaries.

I write about different people, not just Filipinos. What matters is character, the moods and modes of thought and action, the inner workings of their secret hearts. Nationality, like religion, gender or race, is not as important as the person underneath all the labels. To write only about Filipinos is as distasteful to me as a white writer writing only about whites. Let us write about people instead.

I write about love and loss, about hope and despair, about magic and reality. It is not my responsibility to write about social injustice, to cry for the political prisoners languishing in jails, to expose the horrors of the corrupt government, to generate sympathy for comfort women, to depict the marginalization of women - though in my early leftist college days, I did all that - publishing stories about all those things in a voice that wasn't my own, that left me with beautiful stories bristling with technique but bereft of authorial truth. There are many things to write about. Let me choose the stories I'd like to tell. Let me speak the truth I know, the truth that matters to me.

And as for significance, well, while words do have the potential to change the world, they do not do so with each and every outing. Some stories, the quiet, little ones, offer a moment of epiphany. Some proffer a smile of recognition. Others hold up a mirror and point out something so transparent as an observation of the human condition. Some entertain - through adventurous romps, battles and clever twists - while some make you cry. It is the reader, not the author, that creates significance.

The nature of stories is this: change comes in infinite sizes. The success of a story is not measured in how it changes the world but in how, for the duration of the reading experience and perhaps beyond, it affects the reader. That is what makes it significant.

Let me write what I want to write, and let the horizon of expectation take care of itself.


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