The Contemporary Philippine Novel in English

Nota Bene: Not part of the prelims! You may read this later.

Most contemporary Philippine novels are historical novels. In these, history does not merely provide the setting, but enters into the motivation of the characters, peoples the plot. The characters are political beings; their conflicts are engendered by political events. I would even claim that the real protagonist here is the nation itself and the real conflict its desperate struggle for survival. This, it seems to me, is the most important change in the last two decades.

This tradition of writing has always existed in the Filipino novel in all languages. But, while it may not have been the dominant trend in the Filipino novel in English in the past, of late it clearly has been so. Contemporary novelists have all gone beyond the recording of their protagonists’ personal conflicts to focus on the larger problems plaguing the nation. The protagonists of many of these novels are in many ways reincarnations of Rizal’s Crisostomo Ibarra, perhaps an indication of both the enduring power of Rizal on the imagination of Filipino middle-class writers and the inescapable aftermath of the historical situation that gave rise to his novels. Here then, over and over again, is the middle-class intellectual, unable to escape his or her roots, determined to save his or her country, thwarted both by the sinister power of the enemy (in some cases still the colonial master of old, in others his surrogate) and by the tragic flaw in his or her own character, which often is indecision.

In their attempt to (re )write the story, contemporary Filipino novelists have appropriated a number of different strategies, ranging from those of conventional realistic fiction(as in Jose Y. Dalisay’s Killing time in a Warm Place, Renato Madrid’s Devil Wings, Carlos Cortes’s Longitude, and the novel of Ediberto Tiempo, F.Sionil Jose, and Antonio Enriquez), to those associated with marvelous realism and postmodernism (as in Eric Gamalinda’s Confessions of a Volcano and Empire of Memory and Alfred Yuson’s Great Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe). They explore Philippine mythical material, an important part of the work of retrieval, of reconstruction, of the retelling of the story (as in Erwin Castillo’s Firewalkers and Cecilia Manguera Brainard’s Song of Yvounne). They employ such postmodern techniques as the collage, a variety of language Registers, discontinuity of narration, et cetera, to depict the fragmentations and carnivalsque quality of modern Philippine life (as in Gina Apostol’s Bibliolepsy and Alfred Yuson’s Voyeurs and Savages). And, though some of the novels end on an ambiguous note, with the protagonist still trapped in indecision, most-including the one comic novel in the group, The Great Philippine Jungle Energy CafĂ©--finish on a note of affirmation.

A few novels actually conclude with a statement of what the author perceives as the role the writer must play within the postcolonial context. And what is that role? The writer must protest; he must resist his own alienation, his own marginalization, for s/he is the conscience of his race. And the writer must remember, for s/he is its memory. Thus ,these novels are steps toward retrieving the nation’s fragmented past and making it whole, rewriting the story written by the conquerors so that we, the conquered, and our descendants might know it and be healed. Though imaginative reconstruction, our novelists have undertaken the reexamination and reinterpretation of our long, complex colonial history, as well as our more recent history under the Marcos dictatorship. In this they are simply being absolutely true to tradition.

THE FUTURE. It should be mentioned that many of the contemporary Philippine writer in English are expatriates, like Villa, Bulosan. And Santos, and like Rizal and his comrades before them. Some of this new generation of expatriate writers has partly penetrated the main stream in the USA, among them Jessica Hagedorn and Bino Realuyo. Unlike the Bulosan generation, however, they are not writing American immigrant novels. Many are writing historical Philippine novels, something which Oscar V. Campomanese sees as a strategy for making themselves “visible”, a means of coping with their exile that is different from that taken by the first generation of expatriate writers (Campomanes, 163-65).
I see this as a significant trend - namely, the increasing importance of the Diaspora - in Philippine literature. The attention given to ethnic American studies and minority discourse in universities in the U.S. has opened a window for Asian –American writers. On the one hand, it has created an audience for ethnic American literature, including Asian American literature; on the other hand, it has stimulated U.S. - born Filipino American writers to return to the Philippines in search of their roots. Among the Fil- Am fiction writers now published in the U.S. are: Ninotchka Rosca with State of War(1998) and Twice Blessed(1999), Jessica Hagedorn with Dogeaters(1990),Cecilia Mnguera Brainard with When the Rainbow Goddess Wept(1995),Arlene Chai with The Last Time I Saw Mother(1995)and Eating Fire and Drinking Water(1997),Michele Skinner with Mango Seasons (1996),Rinehart Zamor Linmark with Rolling the R’s (1995),Peter Bacho with Cebu(1991), Bino Realuyo with Umbrella Country(1999),and the short-story writers Marianne Villanueva. Evalina Galang and Eric Gamalinda.

In Philippine classrooms, students will sometimes raise the issue of why these writers are being taught in Philippine literature courses, when in fact they are now Americans. My response has always been that I do not see the difference between them and Jose Garcia Villa, Carlos Bulosan, and Bienvenido Santos. There was never ant objection raised to teaching those authors as Filipino writers. The Diaspora is an aspect of the Philippine reality which cannot be ignored. A more important question might be: will we cease to regard these newer authors as “Filipino” when they switch to American as subject and theme, as indeed Jessica Hagedorn has done in The Gangster of Love(1996)

Another trend in the new millennium will be growing importance of the Internet. Access to cyberspace has already made possible the forging of stronger ties between Filipino and Filipino-American writers. Naturally, this is both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, we can today, more than ever, speak of belonging to a community of writers. Writers base both in the Philippines and in the U.S. and other countries are in direct personal contact through e-mail and contribute to Internet magazines such as Likhaan on Line, hosted by the University of the Philippines Creative Writing Center, and Legmanila, hosted by a group of young UP professors, as well as to other electronic’ zines hosted by Filipino living in different countries. On the other hand, these close connections could have the result of alienating Philippine writing in English even farther from Philippine writing in Filipino and the other Philippine languages; for of course, it is the writer in English who is likely to be most drawn to internet, since the over whelming majority of the material there is in English.

The fact that the Net is interactive adds yet another dimension, and now we are able to download novels from the Internet. All this, and other as yet unforeseeable development, will inevitably affect the type of novels being written. Already computer games, e-mail, and the concept of virtual reality have entered into fiction, affecting not just subject matter but narrative strategy as well. Yuson’s Voyeurs and Savages, for example, combine actual e-mail message from people like Eric Gamalinda, Rowena Torrevillas, Evalina Galang, and Eileen Tabios with newspaper clippings and other texts along with a straightforward----albeit fragmented----narrative. Fragmentation and collage are also characteristic of Bibliolepsy and Rolling the R’s. in the future, we will perhaps see serial novels on the internet, or novels on CD, which will be regularly revised and updated, or interactive novels, or a new type of graphic novel produced completely by the writers themselves working with computer graphics and scanners.

According to Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., we have now achieved “a degree of performance and sophistication that we can rightly be proud of, wherever our aesthetic, philosophical or ideological preferences may incline” (Dalisay,145). Though he was speaking of the Philippine short story, I think his assertions may be made of the novel in English as well. Describing the younger generation of Philippine fiction writers, he says they are “generally well-schooled, well-red, and well-traveled, which lends their work a certain consciousness of form, a deliberation of design” (Dalisay, 150)

Their chosen issues tend to be those of gender and sexuality, the environment, cultural identity, and individual freedom. They have material aplenty, but seemingly no single, defining experience, in the way the War or the First Quarter Storm was for their predecessors…...their response to aggravation is rarely anger, but irony and wit, perhaps withdrawal….. They possess a deftness of language that comes not only for reading, but also from speaking and listening to the language all the time; it is an English inflected with the resonances and accents of that pop culture, the internet, the stock market, and yet also of that home in the province that no one ever quite leaves behind. (Dalisay, 151)

Realism remains the dominant style, but many writers are experimenting with marvelous realism, science fiction, the comic book, horror, parody, and other forms of metafiction0 one result is a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between fiction and drama. The writers no longer seem to feel bound to defend their choice of English. After all, many of them are bilingual. “ indeed, we are witnessing the continuing de-Americanization of English ,its appropriation by Filipino writers for Filipino subjects and purposes” (Dalisay,151).it is not unlikely that in the future some novels will be written not in just one language but in two or three, a reflection of the way most Filipino experience the world. Quite possibly, the language of narration might be a form of “standard English” (I enclose the tern in quotation marks to underline the fact that it is problematic), but the dialogue, and even tha characters’ thoughts, may well be rendered in a mixture of Taglish, Engslog, Cebuano, Iluko, swardspeak, colegialaspeak, El-shadai-speak, et cetera as demanded by the character.

CONCLUSION. Is it true that Philippine literature in general is enjoying a kind of “Golden Age”? Well, that may be too grandiose a claim. But if one is to judge by the publishing scene, which has never been so vigorous, or by the appearance of bookstores which not only carry Philippine literature titles, or by the number of literary contests or, particularly, the proliferation of creative –writing workshops and courses both inside and outside academe, and lately even of creative-writing centers, the answer would have to be that it is not doing badly at all.

And what of its audience? Is there a larger audience now for Philippine literature? Paradoxically, the answer to this question would have to be “Just a little, not much.” This is to be regretted, of course, but it has its advantages. Since very few writers in English are dependent on their writing for a living, they are , in a rather paradoxical way, free—free to write in any way they please, free to be as outrageous, as innovative, as daring as they choose to be. This ensures that, although the audience for their work may not be growing as fast as one would wish it, the literature itself is in constant flux. It is growing, changing, transforming. We can only hope that, in one of its transformations, it will find, finally, that it is speaking to and for not just a faithful band of literati but a mass audience as well.


Anonymous said...

ang depth ng words ah

Anonymous said...

ang depth ng mga words ah


The contempory philippine novel in English entry is an article taken from a scholarly journal. I haven't yet received back my copy that's why the source is not yet acknowledged. anyhoo, we'll take this up much much later. and the words will not be too deep by then...hopefully :)